James Sharpe reviews a new adaptation of Zuckmayer’s play.
Based on the Hauptmann von Köpenick affair of 1906, Carl Zuckmayer’s play takes us on a satirical tour of a Germany ready and waiting for World War I. The event that inspired Zuckmayer’s play has become the stuff of folklore – the small man standing up to military might in pre-War Germany.
Wilhelm Voigt, just released from prison, is in a bit of a pickle. He has spent so long inside that he doesn’t have the passport he needs to get the residence permit he needs to get work. He manages to make it to his sister’s home where she offers him shelter and he shows himself to be a thoroughly decent chap by comforting the dying maid.
On the run from the authorities after inadvertently starting a riot, Voigt puts on a captain’s uniform from a fancy dress shop and suddenly finds himself in charge of a band of soldiers, after which he leads them to the town hall and swipes all the money exhorted by the corrupt mayor.
Despite the great source material, this production is a strangely lifeless affair. The problem, I think, is the play itself. Zuckmayer gives a lot of backstory which ridicules the bureaucracy of imperial Germany, but it just isn’t funny enough. It would have had allegorical meaning in 1931 when the play was written, but it has none for us because we’re not the intended audience.
The director, Adrian Noble, knows this too, which is why he’s stuffed the first half of the production with slapstick – cringingly done, I might add – and exploited every technical feat the Olivier Theatre stage can manage. Whole sets pop out of the ground or are revealed hiding behind a hill. It’s all rather good, actually, but to very little effect once the scene plays out. It is an indictment of the whole production when you say that the stage is the star.
Things start looking up once Voigt is finally transformed into the Captain of Köpenick in the second half. Finally we get a bit of comedy. Even better, Antony Sher, playing Voigt, drops his irritating nasal groan for something more patrician and easier on the ear in order to effect his adoption of the captaincy.
Despite the general tawdriness of this production, a couple of performances stand out for comment: Paul Bentall provides the best comedy of the first-half as a bluff old colonel; and Anthony O’Dennoll has just the right hairstyle and rotundity to express authority based purely on birth rather than ability.
It is a disappointing play which could have been saved by some inspired direction; and I fear I have to stress the word ‘could’.