Review – The Captain of Köpenick, National Theatre

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The_Captain_of_K_p_2441817kThere are very occasional trips to the theatre which create a real frisson of excitement, when you can feel your adrenalin flowing, your heart pounding and your moist palms gripping the edges of the seat as you lean forward with such tension that it’s almost impossible to breathe.

In truth, probably the last time that happened for the Whingers was when Neve Campbell fluffed her lines so spectacularly in Love Song. In those days we were ungentlemanly enough to mention it.

When Phil was a student there was a tutor who eschewed theatre because it made him nervous. He had a phobia about it being live, that things might go wrong, actors might bump into the furniture or forget their lines. Ms Campbell would no doubt have finished him off.

With the Olivier stage’s huge drum revolve working overtime at The Captain of Köpenick Phil understood those fears at last.

The Whingers usually sit in the front few rows, so when the Wall of Death revolve is utilised it spins and drops and they can’t see into the depths of the massive contraption. But when booking opened for TCOK, Phil cocked things up and ended up with seats in one of the raised blocks to the side of the stalls. So it was something of a first chance to really appreciate the full complexity of the stage machinery and its extraordinary depth; Phil was able to experience the full excesses of his vertigo.

The actors are often forced to act, dance, march and (eek!) even chase like Keystone Cops, often in quite large and unwieldly groups with the cavernous hole* merely inches away. Phil once saw Finbar Lynch fall off the front of the stage mid-performance. What if someone falls here? Is the National training them with Cirque du Soleil? And just as the cast seem to be on the edge of potential disaster, Phil was on the edge too. Whenever the lower segment was raised again and the stage became complete Phil sat back and relaxed. It was all horribly stressful.

Sadly that proved to be the most interesting aspect of the whole evening.

TCOK is based on true events and comes from the pen of Carl Zuckmayer (no, us neither) by way of Ron Hutchinson who once whipped up the Whingers into uncharacteristically fulsome eulogies with his Moonlight and Magnolias. The promisingly amusing Prussian prison scene which opens the show suggested this might be heading in the same direction. Would that it had.

It is 1910. Antony Sher plays Wilhem Voigt; a man with no identity papers and in the bureaucratic Berlin of the period he can’t get work without them and without work he can’t get papers. So, after release from prison he poses as the titular captain in the Government Inspector-ish Act 2. If only he’d posed as him earlier. Things did eventually pick up (slightly) but not until this deceit is finally executed and the city people start to dance to Voigt’s tune.

Voigt is in a catch-22 situation, yet it’s still hard to sympathise. Although Sher plays him as a genial cove – with a touch of Edward Fox when he’s posing as the captain – he could just as easily be a thieving conniving shit or a little man trying to buck the system. He picks pockets, lies, tricks his prison chum into a tragically disastrous scrape, yet shows only the occasional hint of selflessness. One act, beyond-the-call-of anyone’s duties, sees him help an ailing woman he’s just met, Anna (Iris Roberts) to empty her bowels into a chamberpot. Well, it’s one way to get to know someone on a first date. One wonders what director Adrian Noble‘s instructions were to the actress on the first day of rehearsal, “OK Iris, let’s start by loosening you up with a few improvised movements”. Talk about Martita Hunt!

It’s ably performed with agreeable touches of surreal absurdity and there are occasional humorous moments in the satire, but it all felt rather rambling and scrappy; things really hadn’t gelled by this last preview. It’s not helped by the cavernous Olivier stage, frequent, showy scene changes and occasional musical interludes. Doors, toilets and banquet tables rise through the floor and a three storey house is swiveled on in the impressive German expressionist-styled designs of Anthony Ward, but they just serve to slow the farcical proceedings down.

A few left at the interval, including a man in the front row who’d spent Act 1 wearing the crumpled look of boredom so beloved by Andrew. One woman appeared to spend most of it asleep. Quite a few didn’t even bother to put their hands together for the curtain call which seemed a bit churlish given the dangers the actors appear to be putting themselves in on a nightly basis.


* To end on a more positive note, the cast carry on acting right to the very bottom of their descent in the drum revolve. Impressive.



5 Responses to “Review – The Captain of Köpenick, National Theatre”

  1. David Cottis Says:

    My big problem with this was Ron Hutchinson’s translation, which treats the play as if it were an unsatisfactory first draft; rearranging scenes, taking out a sub-plot and making major changes to characterisation and motivation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that he manages to make the play less funny and less logical, as well as adding, as you indicate, an unsympathetic quality to Voigt himself. John Mortimer’s translation, for the National’s last production in 1971, is truer to Zuckmayer, less of a star vehicle, more politically cutting, and funnier.

    (In case you’re wondering how I come to be such an expert, I was in a production of the Mortimer translation at school, playing a Jewish tailor. Dan Rebellato, now Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, was in the same production as a rent boy.)

  2. LaBrosse Says:

    Downward career curve for Dan there.

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    For once, we are utterly in agreement. I can’t believe how dull it all was. Frankly I had more laughs reading your review, and less regrets afterward.

  4. Boz Says:

    My theory is that a whole generation of actors are being trained in walking at exactly the right speed to match the revolving drum.

  5. Ali Says:

    Does Iris really sh*t on stage? You were lucky to have cocked up the seats if so….

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