6th February, 2013
“I used to think 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.”
The Captain of Kopenick, a 1931 German play by Carl Zuckmayer (subtitled ‘a German fairy tale’)that has been robustly adapted by Ron Hutchinson and directed by Adrian Noble.
Basically, set in the regulated Prussian society 1910, it is based on a true story concerning a petty criminal, Wilhelm Voight who is released after fifteen years in prison. Wilhelm becomes trapped in a bureaucratic maze and becomes an administrative oddity. In other words, he doesn’t exist. It is a Kafkaesque situation whereby he cannot get a job without a residence permit and vice versa. Then follows a series of Montypyhonesque events: he wanders Berlin in desperate, hazardous pursuit of identity papers. Luck changes when he picks up an abandoned military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and finds the city ready to obey his every command. At the head of six soldiers, he marches to the Mayor’s office, cites corruption and confiscates the treasury with ease. But still what he craves is official recognition that he exists. Though he was arrested and, once again, imprisoned, he was later pardoned and made money touring Europe as ‘The Captain of Köpenick’.
This production is awkward. The crudely caricatured performances are tiresome enough to induce sleep. Antony Sher plays Wilhelm as a mole-man who is vocally transformed from a feeble, uneducated thief with an irritating nasal groan into an authoritative officer. Certainly, there is too much reliance on Sher to propel the production.
Throughout, the play lacks a driving punch and becomes unstable as it flips around flips around. The constant slap-stick of the first half is wearisome. To be fair, Adrian Noble’s production coupled with Anthony Ward’s powerful 3-D Gotham- cityscape design is surreal as perhaps a fable demands. The Olivier’s revolving drum hides much of the scenery and offers plenty of dynamic to the staging.
Given that the satire was written in 1930, at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, there was a missed opportunity to update the play, especially as Zuckmayer used the story to satirize the German people’s subservience to uniformed authority and strong leaders. Perhaps 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.