The Captain of Kopenick

"It's not looking good, is it?" So says Wilhelm Voigt (Antony Sher) passing himself off as the high-handed, titular army captain. He's wrong, as it happens.

Antony Sher, Nick Malinowski and Anthony O'Donnell in "The Captain of Kopenick"

“It’s not looking good, is it?” So says Wilhelm Voigt (Antony Sher) passing himself off as the high-handed, titular army captain. He’s wrong, as it happens. Anthony Ward’s triumphant sets, inspired by German Expressionist George Grosz, look terrific, revolving and rising up out of the floor and towering over the proceedings in an ideally threatening and atmospheric manner. Too bad that their tone is not matched by Adrian Noble’s production. In his “The Captain of Kopenick,” the farce feels forced, with Sher’s central performance as strident as it is heavy-handed.

The comically ridiculous goings-on of the latter part of Carl Zuckmayer’s 1931 prophetic play are summed up by an exasperated Interior Minister (Nick Sampson). “The mayor of Kopenick hands over every last pfennig in the municipal treasury on the basis of a piece of paper signed with a signature he can’t read. To someone pretending to be a captain in the reserves wearing a uniform he picked up in a fancy dress shop.”

That description sums up the most satisfying part of the evening. Unfortunately, it relates to activity in the second act, which comes after a fatally long-winded and distinctly laborious first act best summed up as all exposition and no tension.

Sher plays an ex-prisoner and pathological thief who, without papers, is irreconcilably adrift in a society that demands that everything be done by the book to the absolute letter of the law. Zuckmayer and his adaptor Ron Hutchinson use all means at their disposal to place him in the broadest possible satirical context. That leads to a 26-strong cast playing multiple roles from hierarchy-obsessed army officers, petty townsfolk, local bigwigs and rioting mobs to a brass-playing marching band.

Satire, like most forms of wit, succeeds via brevity, a quality singularly lacking here. The first act, in particular, feels like a series of overly extended establishing shots with the pace dragged even slower by Sher who works too hard at the role. The writing suggests comic exaggeration but Sher opts to displays desperation at every turn, leaving the character nowhere to go. Moreover, his character’s quick thinking is contradicted by his ruminative, overly emphatic delivery.

Despite the best efforts of the design team, some of the physical staging — notably some unconvincing fight scenes — add to the lack of momentum. Individual performances lift the proceedings, notably Anthony O’Donnell doubling nicely as a droll cleaner and the self-serving mayor and, as his wife, Olivia Poulet displaying a light comic touch beneath a lilac picture hat the size of Nuremberg.

The second act dramatization of the dangers of blind acceptance of the authority of uniform is undoubtedly trenchant. But the evening as a whole suggests that, in this incarnation, it’s a better idea than it is a play.

The Captain of Kopenick

Olivier, National Theater, London; 1,129 seats £47 $74 top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Carl Zuckmayer in a new English version by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by Adrian Noble.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Mic Pool; music, Steven Edis; movement, Sue Lefton; production stage manager, Alison Rankin. Opened, reviewed Feb. 5, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: Wilhelm Voigt - Antony Sher<br> Paul Kallenberg - Robert Demeger<br> Sissi - Olivia Poulet<br> Mayor Overmuller - Anthony O'Donnell<br> Wabschke - Adrian Schiller<br> Marie Obrecht - Robin Weaver<br> Otti Hoprecht - Barnaby Kay<br> Colonel von Schleinitz - Paul Bentall<br> Herr Schmidt - Nick Sampson With Sandy Batchelor, Jason Cheater, Paul Chequer, Alan David, Damian Davis, Neil Ditt, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Colin Haigh, Kaisa Hammarlund, James Hayes, Peter Howe, David Killick, Siobhan McSweeney, Nick Malinowski, Iris Roberts, Joseph Wilkins, Lynne Wilmot.