The Captain of Kopenick

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    Tuesday, February 5, 2013

    In 1906, an extraordinary event in Germany captured the imagination of the general public, and made the perpetrator something of a folk hero. The event was captured by Carl Zuckmayer in a play entitled 'The Captain of Köpenick: A German Fairy Tale in Three Acts' which was first performed in Berlin in 1931. This English revival of Zuckmayer's work is by Ron Hutchinson and directed by Adrian Noble.

    Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was already in prison for stealing by the time he was 14, and in total spent around 30 years on the wrong side of prison bars. But in 1906 he gained his freedom once more only to fall foul of the authorities for a different reason. He had no 'papers' to prove who he was. Since he had been in prison most of his adult life, he had no passport or anything which could confirm his existence. Apparently, Voigt wanted to live in Berlin with his sister, but the police refused him leave to remain in the city because of his criminal record. So, Voigt took to wearing an old military uniform as a kind of disguise. One day when out and about in the streets of the city, he encountered a small group of soldiers, promptly took charge of them, marched them to the railway station (commandeering a few more soldiers along the way) and then headed for the town hall at Köpenick. There, he helped himself to the money kept in the safe and left the soldiers to guard the building while he made off with the loot. Though he was arrested and, once again, imprisoned, he was later pardoned and made money touring Europe as 'The Captain of Köpenick'.

    Zuckmayer's story follows Voigt's exploits but also provides some of the social background. For example, we find a population which seems devoted to militarism and busily engaged in preparations for war. We also discover a bureaucratic society, hell-bent on order and voluminous quantities of paperwork. When we first meet Voigt, his release from prison looks unlikely because he has no papers to stamp – he is 'an administrative oddity'. And later, we see more bureaucracy at work in the police station and the town hall where visitors are required to stand on line to talk to a policeman, or take a number to get service. Finally, we see that not all German citizens are enamoured with the German way of doing things – revolutionaries make inflammatory speeches and riots duly follow.

    Antony Sher's Voigt is a man who knows his own limitations and his shortcomings. But, he says, he is an 'honest thief' and has largely survived the harsh regime of prison life by living on his wits. Given that the system cannot provide him with a means to 'exist' it is little wonder that he takes matters into his own hands. Mr Sher makes an easy transition from disenfranchised, uneducated thief who has to sleep on a rope at night, to an authoritative army officer with the voice to match. There's good support all-round, but I especially enjoyed Adrian Schiller as the impudent, insolent and very funny tailor, who treats customers with complete contempt, blatantly drinks the champagne while he is supposed to be serving it to officers in the regimental mess, and later takes to the soap-box to denounce the political and economic system.

    There is a strong element of the surreal in Adrian Noble's production, largely thanks to Anthony Ward's powerful design which features a towering, almost 3D cartoon-like cityscape, which dominates all the action. Though Ron Hutchinson has updated some of the language, and there are a few earthily humorous jokes scattered around the dialogue, the comedy is disappointingly scant which I found rather surprising and something of a let-down considering the opportunities afforded by the nature of the central event and the possibilities to contrast it with the regimentation of the German economic and social system.

    (Peter Brown)

    "The first half of this play feels like a long slog through familiar subject matter, though the piece does finally come alive in the second half, when it feels it feels like too little, too late...Sher gives a terrific high-definition performance "
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

    "When the satire bites, it bites pretty hard, but the truly enjoyable scenes are a long time coming."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    "Swollen and heavy-handed revival.
    Paul Taylor for The Independent

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