Sher shines in The Captain of Köpenick

National Theatre

Were it not based on real life events, The Captain of Köpenick would be criticised for implausibility. Written in 1931 but set just before the first world war, German writer Carl Zuckmayer’s play tells the story of a real historical figure by the name of Wilhelm Voigt (1849-1922), a mustachioed, bowler-hatted petty thief.

Voigt was living as an unregistered resident in Berlin in 1906 when he donned an old captain’s uniform, took command of four unsuspecting grenadiers, occupied the Köpenick town hall and had the treasurer arrested on charges of corruption. His crime amused the German public and even won a smirk from the Kaiser, who eventually pardoned him for his indiscretion.

Zuckmayer didn’t exactly have to work hard to eke out the satirical resonance from Voigt’s story. The absurdly militarised society and the perils of blind respect for uniform are obvious themes, and ones that adaptor Ron Hutchinson and director Adrian Noble aren’t afraid of hammering home.

What the production lacks in subtlety it partly makes up for in humour. Antony Sher gives a delightfully bouncy performance as Voigt the “honest thief”. His German accent sometimes fails him, but these lapses only serve to compliment the atmosphere of subterfuge and preposterous gullibility. In his bogus military garb he’s a ball of energy, leaping around and calling soldiers to attention with the excited enthusiasm of child at a fancy dress party.

There are structural flaws, though. A bloated first act keeps us waiting too long for Voigt to undertake his farcical charade.

There is also an issue of context: the criticisms of chest-thumping nationalism would have had real urgency in 1931 Germany, but here they feel laboured through repetition.

The Olivier theatre’s large, versatile space is put to good use, with a protruding, beautifully jaunty cityscape designed by Anthony Ward. The early twentieth century clothing, combined with satirical potshots at the military, evoke a feeling of Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin and the spinning stage is taken full advantage of by the physical comedy.

None of the play’s problems are down to the cast, who turn in – ahem – uniformly good performances. The rotund Anthony O’Donnell’s Captain of Köpenick – who Voigt quarantines and pretends to investigate for municipal corruption – is an amusingly immobile foil for the irrepressible Sher.

Captain of Köpenick is at times bloated and inefficient, but remains undeniably funny and warmhearted – a peculiarly un-German affair.