Categorised by the Nazis as “half Jewish” because his Protestant grandfather was born a Jew, the popular German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer managed to escape the clutches of the Gestapo by moving to America. They got his play though, and banned it in 1933.
And with Adrian Noble’s production, which evokes the colour and chaos of 1910 Berlin, its working-class protests, its soldiers in pointy helmets and Anthony Ward’s huge, cubist backdrop of the city, it is not hard to see why.
Because, at the centre of the tumult, is Zuckmayer’s small-time crook Willy Voight, played here by a terrifically in-form Antony Sher, who subverts just about every national characteristic that reactionary Germany held dear.
Released from prison, Voight is sent by bureaucrats from pillar to post as he searches for the identity papers he needs to live as a German citizen. It is a journey that takes him from the doss-house to the mayor’s office, by which time he has swapped his rags for an army captain’s uniform. Finding himself with a platoon of soldiers at his command, he does exactly what the real-life Voight, on whom Zuckmayer is based, did — he takes the contents of the mayor’s safe and walks out.
Sher is subtly brilliant at depicting a man whose sense of social injustice never quite gets the better of his criminal instincts. Under Noble’s direction, the play, here given a vibrant new translation by Ron Hutchinson, makes its point about the dangers of conformist societies powerfully enough.
But it inevitably packs less punch in 21st-century London than it did in 1930s Germany. And in a production of this scale and exuberance, the warning feels a little like shouting from the rooftops a message that most people agree with. (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)