'I'm in a coffee grinder', exclaims the hapless ex-jailbird Wilhelm Voigt. After watching the endless revolving Olivier theatre stage, I know exactly how he feels. In Adrian Noble's frenetically cartoonish production of Carl Zuckmayer's play, the stage spins and spins and spins every few minutes, with cavernous holes appearing just where the actors are about to plant their feet. It is simultaneously banal and distracting, and it sums up what is wrong with this show.
The National Theatre seems to have a problem with the early 20th century European theatre repertoire; when it does engage, it seems to plunder the catalogue for raw material rather than showing the kind of respect it shows for English-language playwrights of the same period, such as Shaw. I've complained often enough about the way classic Russian texts by Gorky, Bulgakov and even Chekhov have been mangled, and it seems that the same theatrical double standard has now been applied to Zuckmayer as well. I'm not familiar with the original text, but it's fairly clear that Noble and his rewrite man Ron Hutchinson don't have much confidence in it. The result is a rather unfunny vaudeville from which all the subtleties have been extracted. Noble has directed lots of musicals, and it shows in the style he applies here, which seems to owe a lot to Les Miserables. There are lots of moments when the characters appear to be about to burst into song, and just occasionally they do so.
Visually, it has its good points. Noble hasn't been tempted to fiddle around with the period, and leaves the story in the pre-1914 of the Kaiser's Berlin, where the mere possession of a military uniform could turn a down-and-out ex-con into a man of substance. The music in the style of Weill and the modernist backdrop suggest more the late 1920s when Zuckmayer wrote the play. It's easy to poke fun at Prussian militarism with its uniforms and funny helmets with spikes on top, but the satire lacks any contemporary bite. What this show lacks is a clever reinvention of the kind that David Farr applied to Gogol's Government Inspector a decade or so ago. That show had the wonderful Michael Sheen as a Foxton's estate agent who sows mayhem in a corrupt former Soviet-bloc state when he is mistaken for a U.N. investigator. That production was extremely funny, but this one never gets beyond the mildly amusing. Its humour, relying on Keystone Cops routines and cartoonish stereotypes, never finds the comic nerve.
The one person who emerges with great credit is Antony Sher, playing Voigt. He turns the ex-prisoner into a rounded individual who, unlike most of the people around him, shows real compassion. The moment when Voigt dons a military uniform doesn't come until after the interval -- structurally too late. Sher is a joy to watch as he suddenly discovers the power of his new clothes, shifting in seconds from modest deference and abject submission to an authoritarian bark.
But he and his fellow actors struggle to make an impact, hemmed in as they are by Anthony Ward's over-obtrusive set, particularly in the climactic scene where Voigt and his military patrol occupy the town hall. There are so many staircases crammed into a small space that a scene which demands lots of movement feels cramped and limited. Like the RSC, the National suffers from a rigid system in which the set has to be designed weeks before the cast get into rehearsals; the actors are imprisoned by the set rather than liberated by it. Gigantic big-budget stage sets are generally unneccessary, especially when they leave the audience no space to exercise their collective imagination. As for the revolve, in my view it is least effective when used a simple scene-changing device; when it is used sparingly, it can have a great effect.