“Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece. Magnificent”
“An early contender for play of the year”
“A momentous new play that lives with you long after the curtain has gone down”
Leopoldstadt is a momentous new play from Tom Stoppard. At the age of 82, the playwright has reached back into his own family history to craft a work (his first for five years) that is both epic and intimate; that is profoundly personal, but which concerns us all.
Telling the story of one Viennese Jewish family from 1899 to 1955, it begins teeming with life, with ideas, with debate, with music, with jokes, and ends with a vast, aching sense of loss. Loss for him; loss for them; loss for us. I defy anyone to sit through the final scene dry-eyed.
Above all, perhaps, Leopoldstadt is about memory and the act of remembering. Stoppard’s own family were Czech, rather than Austrian, and he only learned the fate of his grandparents, who were killed in the death camps, late in life. His mother fled the Nazis with him when he was two and rarely talked about it. Piecing together his own legacy, that abrupt rift with his European culture and what it means to be Jewish now, he has forged the story of a parallel, fictitious household. It’s a move that reclaims that lost heritage by recreating it on stage, but simultaneously opens it out to embrace all such families.
Patrick Marber’s staging takes the audience on a similar path to bring scraps of memory to life. As the play begins, we are greeted by huge projected sepia photographs of long-gone family groups. Then one extended family suddenly springs into 3D — full of life and very present — as we are plunged into the middle of a festive gathering.
Paterfamilias Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, who gives a terrific, moving performance) is a successful Jewish manufacturer married to a Catholic woman (Faye Castelow). It is Christmas 1899: there are gags about putting a Star of David on top of the tree and about their son Jacob, “baptised and circumcised in the same week”. But soon a more serious debate about assimilation and belonging breaks out between the optimistic Hermann and his more sceptical brother-in-law, mathematician Ludwig (played by Stoppard’s son, Ed, with touching intensity).
Hermann rejoices that impoverished days in the Jewish quarter of Leopoldstadt are gone: “We’re at . . . the beating heart of Viennese culture. This is the promised land,” he says. Ludwig disagrees. Insidious anti-Semitism remains: “A Jew can be a great composer,” he points out. “But he can’t not be a Jew.”
We all know where the prejudice that Ludwig detects will lead. But Stoppard never shows us the horrors of the camps. Instead, by revisiting that room and that family periodically, he offers snapshots of the before and after: the normalisation of hatred, the descent into brutality, the attempt to pick up the pieces. There is — deliberately — an awful jagged hole between a shocking, very moving eviction scene in 1938, and the meeting between a few remaining family members in 1955.
Stoppard doesn’t push the sobering contemporary resonances, either. Rather, by first filling the stage with vibrant people and with talk of music, art, writing, psychology and mathematics, then emptying it, he quietly portrays the terrible cost of xenophobia. He expresses afresh the shocking fact that no amount of culture or learning could protect a society or its victims from barbarism.
The epic sweep of the piece and the sheer number of characters bring dramaturgical challenges, however, and Stoppard doesn’t overcome them all. The exposition is pretty stiff and stilted in places, and ideas sometimes hijack the dialogue. It’s a bit static, dramatically, and a few debates suffer from the starchy quality that dogged Stoppard’s last play, 2015’s The Hard Problem. The episodic nature of the piece means that characters don’t have much room to expand, denying us deeper engagement with them.
But there may be a point to that frustration, too: these people remain just beyond reach. And it’s a drama that gathers in weight and emotion. Marber’s production deftly shifts with it, moving from light to dark. Richard Hudson’s set subtly combines the trappings of bourgeois security with a sense of fragility and impermanence: there’s no glass in the mirror; the walls look solid but aren’t.
The very number of actors on the stage is significant: it creates a vivid, tangible sense of lives extinguished and makes the ending intensely moving. It lives with you long after the curtain has gone down.
“An unforgettable play from the heart”
So here it is. Tom Stoppard’s last play. Very possibly. Britain’s greatest living dramatist has said that Leopoldstadt is likely to be the end of the road – given his age (82) and how long it takes him to write. Almost every major work he has produced since he burst onto the scene with his Hamlet spin-off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966 has been met with high anticipation.
That this is probably his swansong makes attendance near compulsory. And, watching Stoppard's accomplished family drama, which covers more than 50 years and distils the experience of Middle-European Jewry in the 20th century, a history he’s bound up in, I can’t think of a more apposite and moving way for him to conclude his career.
Is it the equal, say, of Arcadia (1993) which felt like it expanded the limits of what it was possible for a play to contain, entwining two periods and combining questions about thermodynamics, determinism, romanticism, landscape gardening, and so on? I’d say not.
Yet whereas his last play, 2015’s The Hard Problem (about neuroscience, consciousness and, again, determinism) sounded too much from the head, Leopoldstadt, without dispensing with his customary cleverness, is from the heart. It’s straightforward, direct, honest – cumulatively impressive and renewing your appreciation for what he has done before.
In tracing the fortunes of two fictional Viennese families – Merz and Jakobovicz – connected by marriage, decimated by the nightmare of Nazism in the wake of the 1938 Anschluss, the evening moves into ever darker terrain. There are absences where once there were people, dead-ends instead of promising futures. We know of course how many millions got caught up in the tragedy; Stoppard gives that incalculable human catastrophe a domestic dimension and brings it home in more ways than one.
Here for the first time on stage, the man born Tomáš Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia in 1937, broaches his Jewish ancestry and identity, one submerged after his family’s flight from the Nazis, and his widowed mother’s subsequent marrying of the Englishman who gave him his surname. This is a play about attempted assimilation, and the profound cost of that.
The district of Leopoldstadt was the Jewish quarter of Vienna prior to the emancipation of the mid-1860s. First seen in 1899, the central character Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough), a successful manufacturer, has raised his family elsewhere, off the Ringstrasse. He has married a gentile (Faye Castelow’s Gretl), converted to Catholicism. Living the bourgeois dream, he says he has arrived at the ‘promised land’. He worships culture, shrugs off the scepticism of his mathematician brother in law Ludwig (Stoppard’s son Ed, sporting a dashingly cerebral demeanour) who warns: “A Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew. In the end, if it doesn’t catch up on him, it will catch up on his children.”
An early image – Hermann’s son Jacob affixing a star of David atop a Christmas tree – points up the underlying tensions. And as the evening jumps forward, one year, then to 1927, then 1938 (and Kristallnacht), revisiting the same house through the years, we track the course of his disillusion and despair, Scarborough conveying the collapse of confidence, shrinking before us. In the first half the dialogue needs more room to breathe, the many characters more space to expand. Yet director Patrick Marber holds you, creating a sense of living tableaux which gives shape to the welter of relations.
After an overwrought first act, Stoppard brings everything to an unforgettable theatrical climax in the second. Luke Thallon, brittle and thoroughly British, plays Leo, Hermann’s great nephew but also a veiled version of the author, trying circa 1955 (as Stoppard did, later) to find out what became of his family. This youth who was rescued and raised in the UK changed his name from Leopold to Leonard and he weeps when confronted by the loss that entails. The author has said he cried watching these scenes, and I’m not surprised. People have sometimes accused him of being too clever by half, lacking the power to move us beyond words; here is irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
“Grand, contemplative and elegiac”
In 2003, Tom Stoppard was asked if he would ever write a “Jewish play”. “Absolutely,” he answered, though he was more ambivalent about basing it on his personal story. Only a decade earlier, he had found out he was fully Jewish and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps.
Here is his Jewish play – not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play and perhaps his last. As such, there is something momentous about Leopoldstadt, which has the weight and majesty of a final drama. It is grand, contemplative and elegiac with a cast of more than 20 and a historical sweep across six decades.
Stoppard explores Jewish identity through the intergenerational story of the urbane and secular Merz family. They are made up of businessmen, lecturers and doctors who marry out, celebrate Christmas alongside Passover and appear wholly assimilated in the Viennese society of 1899, when we first meet them.
As the years rumble by, we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews; those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust and its inherited trauma, post-war.
Kenneth Tynan said of Stoppard: “You must never forget that [he] is an émigré.” Leopoldstadt casts those words in new light as it asks questions about identity that feel live and urgent: how are we defined – and confined – by racial or religious identities? Is full assimilation possible?
The Merz family are “made” Jewish by history and the Holocaust, and until they are stripped of their wealth and standing, some characters insist they can transcend outsider status. “We are Austrians now,” says Hermann, who runs the family business and has married a gentile. “Austrians of Jewish descent.” The family’s various fates deliver lessons in history – one loses his life fighting for his country, others are sent to concentration camps.
What is initially striking about Leopoldstadt is its lack of hallmarks such as the linguistic play and Pirandellian tricks that have laced Stoppard’s body of work. In the figure of Ludwig, a mathematician played by Ed Stoppard, we recognise the familiar theme of science that has long preoccupied the playwright’s characters. Ludwig cleaves to logic as a way out of the irrational chaos of Nazi ideology: “There is order underneath,” he tells the children about their tangled game of cat’s cradle and, as a metaphor of hope, it is filled with the sadness of hindsight.
Patrick Marber’s production has grand but static set pieces, made up of ideological debate between characters on assimilation, antisemitism, Theodor Herzl’s foundational Zionism and the creation of Israel. Stoppard keeps us at a considerable distance from his characters. The emotional drama builds up, but in the deep waters beneath the surface. However, the characters’ expositional history lessons are jarring, and at times puzzlingly simplistic and leaden.
The cast is so large that some characters feel scantily sketched although Hermann (Adrian Scarborough) is particularly well-drawn alongside his wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow). When there is drama rather than debate, it is arresting – such as a powerful house repossession scene and an infidelity that has long-term consequences. The off-stage action has a searing effect thanks to Adam Cork’s sound design, from the smashing of glass that signifies Kristallnacht to the screeching of fighter planes and stomping of boots.
The stately drawing room of Richard Hudson’s set is drenched in faded Chekhovian grandeur and gloom. A screen brings us dates to mark history and black-and-white pictures that always return to the image of a family portrait. When, finally, the past walks into the present, we are given brief descriptions of each character’s death – “Auschwitz”, “Dachau”, “death march” – the list goes on and on and is deeply tragic. For all its debate and distance, this particular family portrait leaves us bereft at history.
“Breathtaking. The work of a master”