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The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer – Judi Herman finds much to admire in Antony Sher’s man in uniform
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment MagazineThe Strand, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty four years. They have a newly-married son and a daughter – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier called Bertie! E-mail: judi_herman@hotmail.com  

The German playwright Carl Zuckmayer was enjoying huge success when the Nazis came to power and banned his work. For Zuckmayer’s maternal grandfather was born Jewish, even though he had become a Protestant. The playwright moved first to Austria and then, narrowly missing arrest by the Gestapo in 1938, to the USA where he worked in Hollywood and New York before reinventing himself as a farmer in Vermont. He returned to Europe in 1958 and lived in Switzerland until his death in 1977.

The Captain of Köpenick, his 1931 satirical fable is based on the true story of Wilhelm Voigt , an ex- convict who came to be celebrated for the exploits he got up to in a second-hand uniform, impersonating a Captain of the Prussian Guard . These events took place around 1906, which Zuckmayer, in the introduction to his “German fairy tale”, calls “a long time ago”.

Adrian Noble’s large-cast production bustles with business and action against designer Anthony Ward’s cranky cityscape, part Expressionist, part Cubist. A programme note reveals that Thomas Mann thought it “the best comedy in world literature after Gogol’s Government Inspector”, so it’s fascinating that the spectacular production and physical playing style are reminiscent of the great Russian (and partly Jewish) theatre practitioner Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose most famous production was The Government Inspector.

There is no doubting the excitement of the spectacle and the fun of the caricatures of Prussian society, from officers and gentlemen - and ladies - to men in the street and the institutions. And events get off to a great start in the first well-choreographed crowd scene in the prison from which Voigt is about to be released. When Alan David’s ex-army officer Prison Director gives his definition of the cavalry, you just know Antony Sher’s wily, quick-witted opportunistic Voigt is filing away his every word in case they come in handy later – and equally well you also know that they will.

And when the small portly figure of ex Captain now Mayor Obermuller of Köpenick takes the stage at Wormser’s Gentlemen’s Outfitters, Potsdam, for a fitting for a Captain’s uniform, it seems equally clear that it will end up somewhere our hero can get his hands on it. Meanwhile, there’s so much to relish in Anthony O’Donnell’s henpecked Mayor (the first of a pair of fine character sketches from this splendid actor) and Olivia Poulet’s imperious full-blooded matron, who clearly rules this roost.

But it does take rather longer to cut to the quick than seems necessary, however enjoyable Voigt’s desperate odyssey is for the audience.

For it’s not that Voigt is simply a bad lot. He is battling against a labyrinthine system that makes Catch 22 and even Kafka’s The Trial look positively straight forward and benign. In bureaucracy-ridden early twentieth-century Prussia, without papers he has no identity, so he cannot begin to go straight. So taking refuge in a fancy dress shop is the best break he’s going to get.

And if he takes the fullest advantage of finding himself in charge of the useful little platoon of men he encounters, not just to look for identity papers but to requisition a whole lot of paper money too, who can blame him? The target of the satire is in fact the obsession Prussian society had with uniforms, so that by the end of the play, a uniform can command more than attention without a man inside.

Sher’s performance is extraordinary – larger than life, scabrous, utterly believable, sacrificing his cellmate when a break-in goes wrong; and strangely touching when he takes flowers from the well-stocked grave of a recently deceased person of note and wealth to mark the otherwise unmarked grave of his sister’s late lodger, a poor consumptive to rank with Puccini’s Mimi for pathos. He is superb at the play’s actually quite logical climax when he is prepared to trade a confession for identity papers.

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The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer continues in a new version by Ron Hutchinson  at the National , Olivier Theatre, opening 5 February until 4 April 2013. Find out more and book online at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk  
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  • Judi Herman

    Carl Zuckmayer (1896 –1977)

    Wilhelm Voigt (1849 – 1922)

    Antony Sher – Captain, Nick Malinowski – Secretary, Anthony O’Donnell - Mayor Obermuller of Köpenick,

    Anthony O’Donnell - Mayor Obermuller of Köpenick, Olivia Poulet - Sissi the mayor’s wife Photos credit: Mark Douet

    Robin Weaver – Marie Hoprecht, Antony Sher – Wilhelm Voight

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