So … a play billed as a “savagely funny” featuring a criminal in fancy dress commanding an army regiment as he attempts to get identity papers? It sounded like a Kafka farce, a raucous good time, a chance for the National to show what it’s made of – perfect acting and stupendous stagework complimenting people racing around in military uniforms while they try to jump through bureaucratic hoops. I imagined the entire town turning to follow this mystery man, as with his questionable background he was able to finally provide them with the leadership they craved, with comic results.
It turned out The Captain of Köpenick was nothing of the sort, neither really funny nor quick moving. It’s almost entirely a musing on the way the system gangs up on the little people leavened with a thick condemnation of the German mind; if it hadn’t been written by a German, I would have found it racist (and I still found it offensive to say the Germans only want to follow orders). Given its creation at the start of the Nazi era, it’s a chilly warning of what was to come; but with its molasses-thick and almost entirely pointless first act, the endeavor just lacks a real reason to have had so many resources thrown at it. Antony Sher is painfully humane as the petty thief Wilhelm Voigt; but couldn’t we really have done it all in thirty minutes less and without any of the singing? Have people forgotten than less really is more? The last twenty minutes were pretty fun but the evening was an overall failure despite the likely better artistic merit of the script than, say, Turn of the Screw. As this was a preview, it’s possible it will get tightened up more; but as it is, I suspect there will be many ticket offers for this show, as it’s just not really worth making the effort for more than about 15 quid.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013. It is booking through April 16th.)