Carl Zuckmayer’s play is based with surprising fidelity on actual events in Berlin in 1906, when petty criminal Wilhelm Voigt, driven to extremes by even pettier bureaucracy, impersonated a captain in the Prussian guards, commandeered a squad of genuine troops, occupied the town hall of the outlying district of Köpenick and “confiscated” the mayor’s treasury. Mordant commentary on the old Prussian military ethos and the Germans’ readiness to obey instructions given by anyone who seemed to be in authority had some relevance in the run-up to the first world war (the setting has been shifted slightly to 1910), but even more when the play was written. It premiered in 1931, shortly before the accession to power of that little man who looked so like the bank clerk in the public toilet in Act Two.
Zuckmayer’s version of Voigt is a Brechtian species of anti-hero, frank about being crooked but outraged that he remains alive and free when better folk than him are in prison or the grave. The play is sometimes poignant (the scene between Voigt and his sister’s tubercular female lodger is deeply affecting), but more often savagely satirical: gold-braided reservists bluster, pen-pushers bark pointlessly and Voigt finds (as in real life) the Kafkaesque situation whereby he cannot get a job without a residence permit and vice versa. Director Adrian Noble plays up the absurdity of it all without devaluing the content; not knowing the original play, I cannot tell whether Dario Fo was influenced by the account of the impersonation when writing Accidental Death of an Anarchist, or whether it is Fo who has in turn informed Ron Hutchinson’s forthright version of the Zuckmayer.
Anthony Ward’s design, against an Expressionist/Cubist city backdrop, makes full use of the Olivier’s revolve and multi-level capabilities. In the central role, Antony Sher may have a dodgy accent but repeatedly hits the emotional bull’s-eye. At times he seems like a more politically outspoken Chaplin (though not, in fact, the Chaplin of The Great Dictator). Noble elicits strong ensemble work from a company featuring a number of NT notables, and above all the play feels vitally both of its own time(s) and of ours. However, as a sometime Berliner, I have to say the urge to obey is much attenuated; I’ve even, once in a while, seen someone cross an empty late-night street when the little Ampelmann on the crossing light is red.