By Carl Zuckmayer, new English version by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Adrian Noble
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Wednesday 3rd April 2013
I wasn’t sure what this would be like, but as we’ll be seeing Arturo Ui again this year at Chichester, this seemed like a good play to contrast with it. They started on an empty stage with a black background which had a working clock projected onto it; according to this clock the performance began at ten to seven. Lots of prisoners came on stage and formed up into rows, singing a hymn. There was some dialogue at this point, but the music was too loud for us to make out much of it. At the end of the song, two of the prisoners were due for release, but there was a problem. One of the prisoners had the correct papers but the other, Voigt, had none. There followed some amusing exchanges as the Prison Director didn’t want to free Voigt until he got his papers but the guard refused to take him back as there weren’t any papers authorising his return to prison. Eventually the Director was distracted by memories of his time in battle, and Voigt was released into the care of Kalle, the other prisoner being released and Voigt’s friend.
Following this little difficulty, the bulk of the first half was taken up with the impossibility of Voigt getting papers to prove his identity when he didn’t have any papers to prove his identity. The level of double talk was good fun, and the point about slavish obedience to the rulebook was hammered home, along with the information that those in power only followed the rules as much as they wanted to, which wasn’t much at all.
An attempt to access the police records unofficially (i.e. break in to the station) led to Kalle’s death, but Voigt escaped. His sister’s husband, Otti Hoprecht, was a magistrate and a soldier and also a stickler for the rules. He was very upset when Voigt took a small bunch of flowers from a grave festooned with wreaths in order to put it on the grave of a poor woman whom Voigt had helped to nurse. This uprightness meant he wouldn’t use his position as magistrate to help his brother-in-law get his papers, so Voigt had to resort to other methods.
Still on the run, he tried to stay inconspicuous during a political rally on the streets of Berlin; as luck would have it he was singled out by the speaker as an example of the downtrodden masses who were too cowardly to stand up to their political masters. The police were itching to use their batons on these subversives and a massive fight soon broke out, with Voigt disappearing into the first bolthole he could find which turned out to be a fancy dress shop. Voigt picked up a bargain: a Captain’s dress uniform plus accessories, recently discarded by the Mayor of Köpenick’s wife. With the police hammering at the door, Voigt escaped with the shop owner’s help and took refuge in the gentlemen’s toilets at the train station. When the police arrived, he had already transformed himself into a military man and discovered very quickly that they were only too ready to follow his orders, wherever they might lead.
Once Voigt got over his nerves, he took full advantage of the situation and helped himself to a wallet and pocket watch in the process. It was very funny to see that the same actions which had put him in jail were now accepted without question because of the uniform. His overriding desire to get his papers led him to march his men to the town hall, where he found he would need a passport. The town hall wasn’t the place for passports, so he was still paperless. He did manage to rob the Mayor of the entire civic treasury, a hefty sum which may not have been obtained entirely legitimately. We were informed later that when this story reached the Kaiser’s ears, he roared with laughter and then, in all seriousness, commended the fact that Germans would do whatever their leaders told them.
Voigt then went to the Ministry of the Interior and offered to give himself up in return for a passport. The Interior Minister duly obliged, to the frustration of the Police Commissioner, and with Voigt in chains, the rest of the cast danced in homage to the uniform itself, which had now sprung to life and was doing its own little dance at the front of the stage after having waltzed with a few of the characters first.
It was a neat way to end the performance, and while it wasn’t our favourite National production, it was more enjoyable than comments in the press and elsewhere had led us to expect. I can’t evaluate the standard of Ron Hutchison’s version, as this was the first time we’ve seen this play, but the production seemed pretty good to us and the individual performances by the supporting cast were fine. We did find the music and singing a bit too loud for the dialogue at times, the opening scene for one, but on the whole the dialogue was clear and the cultural references understandable.
When the initial black background was removed, a lovely jumble of angular buildings was revealed, marvellously suggestive of crowded humanity, and with lights showing at many a window, it served to remind us of what Voigt was yearning for, a comfortable home life. The revolve was well used too, with one scene being set underground and other locations spinning into place quite briskly. The crew did have to manhandle one large piece of set on and off but the action covered that pretty well. I did wonder if a smaller production in a more intimate space would have led to a livelier performance, but at least this version gave us plenty of bodies on stage.
Anthony Sher was excellent as Voigt. He showed us a rough and ready character, capable of kindness and doomed to non-existence through an administrative oversight. The scenes when he was dressed as the Captain were very funny, and I liked the way he began to enjoy himself as he marched through the streets with his small band of soldiers, dancing to the music while they pounded out a steady rhythm. Barnaby Kay was also good as his brother-in-law, determined to do the right thing according to the rules even when he was denied advancement, while Alan David was a fine Prison Director, whose constant retelling of his war stories gave Voigt the perfect information to enable him to carry off his impersonation successfully.
The play pokes fun at the whole obsession with rules and hierarchies. It’s made very clear that those at the top are corrupt, and that obedience to a corrupt system is foolish. Zuckmayer was apparently criticised for not making his play more political; it may not be as in-your-face political as Brecht’s work for example, but it does include politics amongst its targets. However the main focus for ridicule is the blind obedience to authority, and that’s valid regardless of the political situation.
There were a number of other short scenes and one or two longer ones which introduced the minor characters and which I haven’t included in the description above. They did take away from the thrust of the story for me and slowed things down a bit, although I accept that we did need to know about some of these other characters and how the Mayor’s splendid new uniform came to be in the fancy dress shop for Voigt to find. Still, it was an enjoyable experience, even if it wasn’t a must-see-again production.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me