The Captain of Kopenick by Carl Zuckmayer is the story of a man who has fallen through the cracks–it is Berlin 1910, and having been in and out of jails all his life Wilhelm Voigt has lost his identity papers and thus any chance of making a life for himself. In director Adrian Noble’s new production at the Olivier Theatre at the National, we witness a farcical tale based on a true story of a man who, in the search for his identity, reveals the deep social and political problems of pre-war Germany.
Voigt himself, played by Antony Sher, is a peculiar character. We are never sure how sorry for him we are meant to feel; he leaves his friend and fellow former inmate to die at the hands of the police, then goes off to comfort a sickly young woman being cared for by his sister. He steals an officer’s wallet in one scene and then flowers for the girl’s grave next. Played with blustering bravado that occasionally gives way to a deep frustration with society, Voigt is an enigma, but one whose exploits are entertaining to watch.
This is undoubtedly Voigt’s show, and very few other characters stand out. The sick girl Anna (Iris Roberts), the tailor Wabschke (Adrian Schiller), and Krakauer the railway station toilet-cleaner (Anthony O’Donnell) each give engaging and amusing performances, but they do not really relate to the show as a whole. This play often feels as though it cannot decide if it wants to be epic or intimate; some of the best scenes are the choreographed crowd scenes, whether of balls or riots, and yet we follow one man’s story and others are only important in how they relate to him.
Meanwhile, the Olivier’s famous revolve stage–the stage spins in a circle, set pieces emerge ghostlike from the floor as well as the above fly system, and massive multi-level houses are wheeled on and off–certainly delivers, but in a way that distracts from the actual performance of the people on stage. Watching the entire city hall rise from underground becomes the focus, rather than what actually occurs inside.
All of that said, I enjoyed this show more than I almost ever do with comedies. The second act narrows its focus to the particular plot of Voigt’s grand theft at the same time as it broadens to include the riots and popular discontent of the German people, more directly engaging the audience’s sympathies. It is both hilarious and horrifying to see Voigt turn into the model of what he hates, the empty and foolish authority of the Prussian military terrorising its people, and whether you want to root for his success or his demise, Sher manages to draw you into the world. Somehow both grand-scale and personal and yet neither at the same time, The Captain of Kopenick is a fascinating glimpse into the German pre-war military state and its effects on its citizens, which will make you laugh as well as make you think.