Review: The Captain of Köpenick, National Theatre

Sometimes it is not so much a production that you enjoy as it is an actor who holds the production together making it enjoyable. Such are my feelings towards the National Theatre’s The Captain of Köpenick with Antony Sher leading as the mischief making Wilhelm Voigt.

The Captain of Kopenick

After fifteen years imprisonment Voigt is released back to society, but without any official paperwork his prospects are looking bleak. To attain work you need your papers, to attain your papers you need a temporary resident permit, and to attain one of those you need your passport which can only be attained from your initial papers. Such is the conundrum that it is perhaps not surprising that before Voigt has made it a day outside of ‘the nick’ he is hatching a plan that will surely see him banged up once more. Ron Hutchinson’s version of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick is a playful look at the injustice of someone who can’t get back to the straight and narrow without crossing the line of criminality to get his identity.

In the Olivier Theatre any production demands a certain fullness to fill the depths of the National’s largest playing space. Adrian Noble’s production does well, and it could be argued much better than some of the work that has had the unpleasant experience of tackling the Olivier stage. Nonetheless The Captain of Köpenick distinctly lacks a certain oomph during the first half leaving the pacing and lack of dramatic conflict plodding with the audience in tow. Certainly Noble makes much use of the comic twists within the second half, but this is only because the plot and dialogue demands the cast follows in farcical fashion. Anthony Ward’s vast kaleidoscope design places much of the action against a backdrop of houses across the city; almost Alice in Wonderland enchanted with varying sizes and shapes. Naturally the Olivier’s revolving drum hides much of the scenery and offers plenty of dynamic to the staging.

But it is Sher in the title role that gives Nobel’s production the enjoyment that Hutchinson’s script can deliver. Almost mole-like in his appearance, with a soft and nasally voice, Sher’s Voigt is not so much a slimly criminal as a sympathetic one. Showing all levels of depth and sentiments Sher goes from pleading with his kindness for his papers, to a farcical piece of treachery that sees him taking command of a regiment of soldiers and storming the town hall. You can’t help but to feel for Voigt’s plight in wanting to become an honest man but one that is caught within the red tape of bureaucracy. Even when you know the character is misleading and stealing his way back into society Sher’s acting seals it, Voig becomes a loveable villain, with more of the love than that of the villain.

Looking at The Captain of Köpenick through the lens of post-war Germany and Britain, and in the current coalition government there is much to be said for Zuckmayer’s play within Hutchinson’s version. Notably how someone who with the right apparel and commanding can so easily lead a group of people without questioning of rank or authority. There are certainly parallels to be made to those caught within the system of paperwork, or those who fall out of it because of administrative error. There’s a particularly touching moment when Voigt gives himself up to the authorities on the condition he can have a passport. Why a passport? Just so he can be recognised as having one issued, and thus the authority recognising he is someone, and not an error within the system. It’s not philosophical but a basic acceptance of a person identity, of which Sher delivers his character’s weakness with gentle force.

For all its undercurrents of poignant themes and the laughs it provokes within the second act, The Captain of Köpenick lacks a completeness, relying far too much on Sher’s leading character to propel the production. The ensemble are competent but I for one struggled with connecting to the production as a whole; the conflict was lacking in an otherwise sound and standard production.

The Captain of Köpenick is playing at the National Theatre in the Olivier Theatre until 4th April. Tickets can be brought from the National Theatre website.