Ray Rackham reviews Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt which is now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
There is much to applaud in Tom Stoppard’s latest, and quite possibly last, play LEOPOLDSTADT. Indeed, quite possibly too much as the six-decade journey of the Merz family in Vienna covers much ground, and over two dozen characters; starting with a Christmas Tree lighting in 1899 and concluding with three characters enduring post-Holocaust revelations in its 1955 conclusion. But excess here comes in the form of a fittingly welcomed embarrassment of riches; as true to the sweeping timespan as it is the important themes within.
Conceptually, LEOPOLDSTADT is fascinating; following Adrian Scarborough and Faye Castelow as Herman and Gretl Merz, a leading Viennese industrialist and his Catholic wife, as they attempt at the turn of the twentieth century to assimilate into Viennese high society. The term, “catholic, of Jewish descent” is bandied about at a sprawlingly large family gathering; as the older, or more orthodox, members of the Merz family struggle to comprehend how a person can be the two things simultaneously (whilst themselves fussing over the decorating of a Christmas Tree). We move forward two decades and find our characters in the midst of the roaring twenties; those in the prime of their lives now greying and showing signs of age, the Merz children and their cousins having become adults. Austria has been ravaged by the Great War, and the damage is clearly etched onto each member of the Merz family; both in the physical and the spiritual. The spectre of assimilation looms over the family, like an unwanted relative at the Briss to which they have assembled to celebrate. Yet, the most important issues of the day remain questions of identity and belonging; and it’s here that Stoppard’s sharply acute dialogue goes great ways to say much, whilst saying little. We hear the roar of a fighter plane and the sound of jackboots and find ourselves in the Vienna 1938; where the play and the fates of all the characters take a devastatingly harrowing turn.
LEOPOLDSTADT is one of those rare plays that is better because of the summation of its very distinct parts. From Patrick Marber skilfully allowing the staging to skip decades yet remain completely coherent, to Adam Cork’s surprisingly terrifyingly and adeptly agile sound design, the play is an impressive feat of theatrical and intellectual accomplishment; assuming the air of majesty and eminence one might expect from the octogenarian Stoppard. It speaks most eloquently when the characters philosophise, rather than debate (there is a wonderful scene where Caroline Gruber’s perfectly pitched Grandma Emilia mourns the forgotten faces in a family photo album) and then transcends the expected Stoppardisms into chaos and terror when the Merz family are confronted with the horrors and tragedy of Kristallnacht and beyond.
Scarborough and Castelow lead an impressive ensemble cast of characters for whom we grow to care, very much in fact; the relationship between Alexis Zegerman and Ed Stoppard’s Eva and Ludwig is so blissfully believable in earlier scenes that the Press Night audience gasped when Mark Edel-Hunt’s calculating and terrifying Nazi Civilian turned his attention to them. It’s because we can guess their fate, even as we sit and will if not to be so. When, after the horrors of the 1940s, only three Merz family members remain, we find ourselves experiencing genuine grief, for we then learn the fates of those whose lives we’ve followed for forty years: ‘Auschwitz, Suicide, Auschwitz, Death March, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz’.
Whilst the play is not biographical, elements of Stoppard’s own Jewish heritage have been clearly woven into the tapestry of themes and events we witness, and although Stoppard makes no obvious allegorical connection to those events and modern society, a 2020 lens lurks in the shadows of Richard Hudson beautifully imposing set. The piece often holds a mirror to issues the world faces today, without even trying to; which somehow makes that ever more poignant. And yet, it never entirely loses its humour. During an exquisitely judged coda, of the three surviving Merz family members only one endured the horrors of Holocaust (the other two emigrating to Britain and America). The irony that the two emigres having stronger Jewish lineage is not lost on him, “I’m only three-quarters Jew, you’re the full catastrophe”.
A catastrophe this play is not. It’s a delicately nuanced, hauntingly poignant, important piece of theatre. Please, go and see it!