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The Captain Of Köpenick

Published 6 February 2013

A floating suit that dances, fables told by a dying girl and characters that talk in riddles; the National Theatre has created a fairy tale from Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain Of Köpenick with Antony Sher the unusual hero of the piece.

He’s an uncommon leading man in many ways, being a professional thief and compulsive liar who has spent more time in prison than out, but Sher’s Wilhelm Voigt is such a cheerful delinquent you can’t help but root for him.

Stuck in a predicament Jean Valjean would sympathise with, Voigt is an administrative oddity with no papers to prove his existence. The only way out in sight is to acquire a passport or resident’s permit which, of course, he can’t get without papers. It’s an ever ending circle that leads Voigt into trouble with the law time and again until a stroll into a fancy dress shop promises to end all his problems.

Impersonating a military captain might be troublesome for some, but in this German city the military are a bumbling lot, led by a corrupt mayor who spends most of his time in a onesie – I think it was called underwear back then – being berated by his sour-faced wife who can luckily be distracted in most situations through her fetish for uniforms and patriotic brass bands.

Sher leads the company through this farcical satire with youthful aplomb, providing some of the plays funniest moments with his hilarious deadpan delivery of Zuckmayer’s ridiculously silly riddle wordplay – in Ron Hutchinson’s new English version – and an endearing cheekiness that has you rooting for misbehaviour in light of the other civilians’ much-loved pompous military men.

The Olivier theatre’s revolve provides suitably fairy tale settings, offering us nightmarish, cramped sleeping quarters for the poor and red velvet-covered beds for the rich, quaint cottages with crooked staircases and a police station with drawers of files looming over the actors. Set against designer Anthony Ward’s cubist town backdrop, nothing is quite based in reality; the stairs leading to nowhere, the paintings hung skewed, the drawers leaning precariously to one side and the perspectives of the houses disorientating.

Olivia Poulet as the foot-stamping, demanding mayor’s wife Sissy and Anthony O’Donnell as her corrupt, rotund, clueless husband add to the storybook feel with their over the top characterisation, but others enhance the dark side of the story, police brutality and growing discontent in the community providing the drama’s vital backdrop of political unsettlement.

In reality the story is no fairy tale and is in fact based on real events, which led to the Nazis banning Zuckmayer’s work due to its potentially dangerous message of political disobedience. Whether the dancing suit really happened is another matter entirely, but Adrian Noble’s production is made all the more successful with this small touch of magic.

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