Do the Germans have a sense of humour? Discuss – preferably after having seen the National Theatre’s blockbuster version of Carl Zuckmayer’s 1930 play The Captain of Köpenick.
The programme notes tell us this play is hardly known outside Germany, where it’s a classic. We’re not sure whether to be surprised or not. On the one hand this play is a satire on what it means to be German – or, more specifically, Prussian in the early 20th century. Its most obvious target is the fetish for all things military – particularly uniforms, but also language (women are “stormed” rather than seduced) – that prevailed in the patriotic, bellicose days before World War I. In the second half the anti-hero, petty thief Wilhelm Voigt, played with great warmth by Antony Sher, finds himself transformed from nobody to celebrity when he dons a blue coat and spiked helmet. He promptly convinces a unit of infantry to take the town hall in Köpenick (an outlying borough of Berlin) and walks off with its treasury.
This was clearly just as relevant in Germany in 1930, when the Nazis were already the second-largest party in parliament, as it was in 1906, when the real-life incident that inspired Zuckmayer took place. It is perhaps less relevant in contemporary Britain. Excessive respect of the armed forces is hardly the problem of our age, and we are constantly reminded of the lessons of early 20th century German history.
But, on the other hand, this satire has a broader target that is well suited to our recessionary times – the legitimacy of a social order in which an outcast like Voigt has no part. He spends the first half of the play running around Berlin trying to get a resident’s permit, for which he requires a passport, for which he requires a fixed address, for which he requires a resident’s permit. This frantic hunt for identity, let alone a job, in a bustling but heartless city is well conveyed by a lot of whirling sets that make excellent use of the Olivier Theatre’s sophisticated stage machinery.
It’s a Kafkaesque drama firmly rooted in the German expressionist tradition – to which the wonderful sets, in that abstracted art-deco cum gothic style made famous by films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis, pay homage. Yet it’s still resonant today, at once funny and moving. Most people Voigt meets, notably his rule-abiding but sympathetic brother-in-law, display an unshakable faith in a system that treats him as nothing but an “administrative oddity”.
The play also contains a lot of broad farce and – literally in one crucial scene that takes place around a latrine – toilet humour. Director Adrian Noble’s production takes full advantage of every gag, keeping the audience on press night simmering away with laughter. All in all, a very enjoyable evening.
The Captain of Köpenick is playing at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, until 4 April. Tickets £12-£47.