Reviews West End & Central Published 7 February 2013

The Captain of Köpenick

National Theatre ⋄ 29th January - 4th April 2013

A German fairy tale.

Neil Dowden

Carl Zuckmayer’s 1931 comedy The Captain of Köpenick is subtitled “a German fairy tale” but its seemingly fantastical lampoon on the fatherland’s militaristic conformity is rooted in real events. In 1906 shoemaker/petty crook Wilhelm Voigt became a folk hero after posing as a Prussian Guards officer and raiding the local civic treasury.

Zuckmayer used the story to satirize the German people’s subservience to uniformed authority and strong leaders, which though set in the run-up to the First World War clearly had terrifying contemporary relevance with Hitler just two years away from taking power.

 At the outset, we see Wilhelm released from a Berlin prison after 15 years but without identity papers he is adrift in the outside world as an “administrative oddity” who has fallen through the cracks of society. In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic stalemate he cannot obtain papers without a permanent residence, for which he needs a job, which in turn requires ID. On the run from the police after getting caught up in a political demonstration, he gets hold of a captain’s uniform from a second-hand fancy-dress shop and, taking command of some guards, marches to the town hall where he exposes the mayor’s corruption while helping himself to the contents of the safe.

Zuckmayer’s send-up of Germanic rule-bound uniformity, confirmed by his own experience as a soldier in the Great War, is expressed neatly by Wilhelm: “I used tothink all the trouble in the world was caused by people giving orders. Now I reckon that it’s people being so willing to take them.” Unlike his contemporary Bertolt Brecht (with whom he worked as a dramaturg at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin in the early 1920s), Zuckmayer avoids taking a didactic political line, but you feel he could have driven home more forcibly the parallels with the rise of the Nazi Party (which later banned his plays because of their part-Jewish author). The result is an enjoyable if cartoonish ridiculing of absurd hierarchical attitudes rather than a savage satire on the dangers of “just following orders”.

With its echoes of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Ron Hutchinson’s new English version gives a colloquial earthiness to the play, even if while some of the jokes work well others seem a bit heavy-handed. Adrian Noble’s entertaining, spectacular production certainly makes full use of the Oliver’s size and revolve, with military brass bands marching, Keystone Cop-like chases and loads of stage business, though it does seem a bit overblown sometimes, ending in Monty Python surrealism. Anthony Ward’s striking design features an expressionist high-rise city backdrop, moving from a cramped doss house and modest grocery shop, to resplendent regimental mess hall and imposing town hall.

Antony Sher plays Wilhelm as a little man cocking a snook at the establishment, a worm who eventually turns. With his wheedling voice and submissive body language, he initially accepts his humble lot, but his need to assert his identity turns him into an impudent subversive – if only until he is formally recognized by the authorities. Anthony O’Donnell gives good support in the dual roles of pompous mayor and taciturn lavatory cleaner, with Olivia Poulet as his domineering wife who wears the trousers if not his uniform. Adrian Schiller excels as a sardonic tailor, cheeky waiter and communist demagogue, while Alan David’s Franco-Prussian War disciplinarian prison director and Nick Sampson’s urbane Minister of the Interior take different approaches to the same end: keeping the lower ranks in their place.


Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

The Captain of Köpenick Show Info

Directed by Adrian Noble

Written by Carl Zuckmayer, in a new English version by Ron Hutchinson

Cast includes Antony Sher, Sandy Batchelor, Paul Bentall, Jason Cheater, Paul Chequer, Alan David, Robert Demeger, James Hayes, Barnaby Kay, David Killick, Siobhan McSweeney, Nick Malinowski, Anthony O’Donnell, Olivia Poulet, Iris Roberts, Nick Sampson, Adrian Schiller, Robin Weaver, Joseph Wilkins, Lynne Wilmot, Damian Davis, Neil Ditt, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Colin Haigh, Kaisa Hammarlund, Peter Howe




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.