Theatre review: The Captain of Köpenick - If you’re going to put on a uniform, make sure it’s not riddled with holes

 

There's something really wrong here: the whole social system is unjust, our skint protagonist exclaims. A scallywag in tattered boots and a squashed felt hat, Antony Sher's Wilhelm Voigt sounds briefly like an impassioned revolutionary.

His life of petty thieving, as pursued hitherto, isn't going to bridge the economic gulf between him and the champagne-quaffing ruling classes. Moreover, with no identity papers, he is literally a nobody, kept in the poverty trap by surreal amounts of bureaucratic red tape.

In the NT's staging of Carl Zuckmayer's satire The Captain of Köpenick – set in Prussia in the lead-up to the First World War, and written during Hitler's rise to power in 1931 – most of Voigt's fellow citizens unquestioningly accept the authoritarian rules and adore men in military uniform.

Any protesting radicals are sent flying by baton-wielding police. Scuttling away, pursued by a brigade in spiked Pickelhaube helmets, Sher's Voigt dashes into a fancy-dress shop. Emerging disguised in an army captain's regalia, our antihero becomes an impish grand imposter, discovering that folks obey his every command – emptying the town hall's municipal safe or mindlessly marching off to war. Combining what ought to be absurdities with headline-making actualities, Zuckmayer's play came with the sardonic subtitle A German Fairy Tale.

Adrian Noble's production occasionally manages to speak across the decades, chiming with contemporary British concerns, but more often it misses its mark. Indeed, Ron Hutchinson's new, colloquial English version of the script often sounds incongruous, at odds with the Prussian period costumes (not least when Voigt likens a winged civic sculpture to Big Bird).

The lower-class accents come and go. Most of the knockabout comedy is feeble. Without sharp directing, the humour fails to acquire a grotesque edge, though some scenes feel they should be close to Gogol or George Grosz. Designer Anthony Ward does his best to introduce darker cartoonish elements. The revolving stage is dominated by an Expressionist cityscape of skewed tower blocks, invoking the dystopias of Fritz Lang, and a Dadaist portrait of the Kaiser looms overhead, clacking its gigantic jaw.

Moving swiftly on to the virile trickster-god Esu and a trio of argumentative sisters, Feast at the Young Vic is an electrifying and pioneering piece of multimedia theatre. Brilliantly directed by Rufus Norris (of London Road acclaim), it traces Yoruba culture and its religious traditions from their West African roots, through the Atlantic slave trade, to Brazil in 1888 (the last nation in the Western world to embrace emancipation), and thence to the diaspora in modern-day Cuba, America and Britain.

I have to admit I didn't come away with an entirely firm grasp of who's who in the Yoruba pantheon. The performers whirl through the centuries, playing out vignettes scripted by playwrights from different continents (this being an international co-production for World Stages London). Yet these scenes offer fascinating insights, take unexpected angles, and can be witty and complex, exploring unresolved tensions.

You learn that Esu is an unreliable shapeshifter, associated with crossroads, chance and chaos, but that change, in this belief system, is to be boldly embraced, while a person's ultimate goal is self-knowledge.

Norris's talented ensemble and creative team – including Cuban choreographer George Cespedes – also relay the cultural history using a weave of dialogue and spine-tingling song, ritualistic and sexy contemporary dance, and playfully inventive set-design by Katrina Lindsay.

Swaying goddesses, with heads like corn sheaves, and generations of women emerge through a shimmering beaded curtain that flickers with ghostly projections. And Esu, a lithe flash of scarlet against the darkness, materialises in numerous guises, one minute in tribal robes, the next in a trilby and winklepickers. Dazzling.

'The Captain of Köpenick' (020-7452 3000) to 4 Apr; 'Feast' (020 7922 2922) to 23 Feb

Next Week

Kate Bassett sees whether Robert Lepage comes up trumps with Playing Cards 1: Spades

Critic's choice

Pinter's dark three-hander, Old Times, is intriguing and intense, with Rufus Sewell, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams in a love-hate triangle – at London's Harold Pinter Theatre (to 6 Apr). A fine revival of The Accrington Pals, Peter Whelan's portrait of Lancashire lads in the trenches, is at Manchester's Royal Exchange (to Sat).

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