First produced in 1931, a couple of years before Hitler came to power, Carl Zuckmayer's comedy pokes risky, spirited and oddly charming fun at the German inclination towards militaristic conformity.
The Nazis unsurprisingly banned the piece. But, as you sit through this swollen and heavy-handed revival by Adrian Noble in the Olivier, it's another national stereotype that sometimes unjustly springs to mind: the proverbial leadenness of the Germanic sense of humour.
Subtitled “a fairy tale”, the play focuses on Wilhelm Voigt, a petty thief and jailbird who, when released from the nick, finds himself in a maze of Prussian bureaucracy. He's trying to track down the identity papers without which can have no official existence, let alone a residence permit or a job, in this manically regulated 1910 society. Then, while on the run from a riot, he purchases a military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and is immediately mistaken for the genuine article. Far-fetched? Well, no. The plot is based on the real-life story of a vagrant who did precisely that and became something of a folk-hero.
Antony Sher's bravura Voigt is very funny as he blossoms, courtesy of his disguise, from a dumpy, ruefully scapegrace little misfit into a swaggeringly blimpish captain. With shades of Gogol's Government Inspector, the easily-accepted imposture fulfils the protagonist's long-nursed fantasy of being a VIP. There's a lovely sequence where, with a detachment of soldiers now literally marching to his tune, Voigt's feet can't resist breaking into absurd fugitive deviations from the goose-step pattern out of sheer incredulous elation. And the comedy really takes off in the great scene where, under the pretence of investigating municipal corruption, our hero empties the mayor's safe and indignantly, ahem, confiscates the ill-gotten contents.
But the play keeps you waiting an unconscionably long time for these high spots – a fact not disguised by Ron Hutchinson's adaptation which sometimes goes a vulgarity too far in its robust, modernising earthiness nor by Noble's elephantine production with its effortful cartoon-Expressionist sets, its woefully unspontaneous slapstick, and its over-emphasis on rousing nationalist choruses and oom-pah military bands. It's a repetitive piece, true, but here, by time we learn at the end that the Kaiser is delighted that Voigt's trick initially worked – because it shows the German people are suckers for a top-brass uniform and “will follow wherever we lead them” – the point seems to have been laboured into the ground.