The Captain of Kopenick

Another farce at the Olivier Theatre, though this one seems a lot more at home on the open stage than The Magistrate.

Captain Kopenick

(National Theatre poster)

The Captain of Kopenick, by the German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, was first produced in Berlin in 1931 and banned by the Nazis in 1933. It is based on a true story about a man called Wilhelm Voigt (played by Antony Sher) who having been released from prison, where he has spent most of his life, and in a desperate hunt to obtain official papers – without which he cannot get a job, a place to live or prove his existence – he purloins the uniform of a captain in the Prussian army from a fancy dress shop, adopts a posh accent and instantly becomes Somebody to Be Reckoned With. He takes charge of a passing unit of Guards, bosses his previous superiors and ends up swindling the Mayor of Kopenick out of the contents of his safe and, finally, obtaining his identity in the form of a passport before being carted back off to prison again.

It’s a satirical farce about the power of the uniform and those who blindly follow it. Nobody has the faintest idea who the captain is but he wears a Uniform and therefore Must Be Obeyed. (Which is presumably why the Nazis banned it.) Apparently the play is a classic in Germany and studied in every school (according to my German next door neighbour in the stalls), but it seems only to have been produced in England once before, by the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1971, and starring Paul Scofield as Voigt (according to Wikipedia).

Unlike many of my friends I love a good farce but there’s nothing guaranteed to freeze the laugh on the lips than watching actors trying too hard. There are some desperately unfunny sequences and performances in this production: elderly men quivering over bouncing bosoms, cliche Prussian soldiers with silly moustaches and anachronistic references to the number 9 bus. Along with Sher, the other Anthony – O’Donnell (with lumpy padding) as the Mayor of Kopenick – shows how it should be done.

Antony Sher (NT website)

Antony Sher (NT website)

At the heart of the shenanigans is a simple, moving story of a man desperate to prove his existence and for me, the most telling moments are those when Sher, the ‘honest’ thief with a sort of heart of gold, wonders at the unfairness of a world where a young innocent woman dies of some disease while he,  a rogue, survives; and his tearful joy when he finally receives his passport (which had some of the audience going  ‘Aaah’).

Anthony O'Donnell as the Mayor of Kopenick

Anthony O’Donnell (NT website)

The Olivier stage whirls and swirls and once again pulls out all its technical stops. Every time the drum revolve emerges it has a different set on it (it’s not surprising the first performance was cancelled, presumably for technical reasons).  But I just kept yearning for less – less bombast, less overacting, less moustache twirling – less distraction overall.

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