Tom Stoppard’s argumentative, essay-like epic of aspiration, assimilation, and annihilation gives the fragile coexistence of civilisation and barbarism a devastating punch in the face and will leave you shredded and thoughtful. Unlike many a great saga, Leopoldstadt puts its audience through an intellectual wringer first and an emotional one second. The octogenarian author’s much-anticipated work is foremost a play that examines ideas and identity around which we witness the sheer scale of tragedy rather than following a protagonist who enacts a personal story that threads through generations.
This play starts and stays very big until it finally shrinks to the memories and testimony of just a few. With an opening that is almost cinematic and operatic, attention is mustered by Adam Cork’s soaring score whilst high-end photographic projections alert us that we are in Vienna in 1899. Richard Hudson’s set uses height, depth and width to convey the grandeur, splendour and urbanity of the fin-de-siècle capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a large bourgeois family.
We are introduced to Merz and Jakobovicz’ clans celebrating Christmas and the sumptuous, out-sized feeling of their grand salon is matched by the sense that members of these families are plentiful. Like supernumeraries on an opera stage, there are too many characters to count and yet there is more than enough space for all of them.
Upstage, we see a giant gilded frame of this gilded age but never a window offering a view beyond this spacious and comfortable interior world. With a sight-gag about a child innocently placing a Star of David briefly atop the Christmas tree, we learn, jocularly, of the pragmatic approach industrialist Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough) has taken to gaining status as a Jew in this society; having experienced rites of both circumcision and baptism. And like all Christmas celebrations, family debates and arguments begin. But in Stoppard’s world, they are not embittered, personal, dysfunctional or drunken: they are the first two elements of Hegelian dialectic.
In the first act, Hermann delivers many a rousing and appealing speech about the glories of his place in the world (‘my grandfather wore a kaftan, my father wore a top-hat to the opera, I invite the singers to dinner’) and the unique wonders of Vienna, where 1 in 10 people are Jews and, even more impressively, half of all university graduates are Jewish. Mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard), on the other hand, notes that, despite the blend of peoples in this empire, the Jews are the only ones without territory and makes the case for the need for permanence of place, whether through the time’s specific lens of nationalism or not. The oratory is magnificent. The men’s exchange is brilliant, beautifully constructed and delivered, and masterfully theatrical, but, make no mistake: this is glorious, thought-provoking debate from and hitting the cerebral cortex and not – yet – the heart.
Stoppard speaks of his own history and ‘drawing a blind over’ painful facts. With a series of scrims, both vertical and horizontal, the blinds are literally drawn over family moments again and again. As we embark on the 20th century, we enter classic Stoppard territory of marital betrayal and deception but this time infused with the reality that having ‘the singers to dinner’ may confer prestige but cannot command dignity from those who rule a world tuned to dehumanise Jews even if they momentarily tolerate them. Finally, however, the personal and the political intersect and culminate with emotional peril thanks to Gretl (Faye Castelow) toying with her identity and aspirations, just as her husband, Hermann, does with his.
The act that started with these families celebrating Christmas ends with their Pesach Seder. As the century turns, we also see human emotional motives begin to create propelling and important action that will culminate in extreme irony some four decades later. However, because, the vantage Tom Stoppard’s writing and Patrick Marber’s direction gives us is mainly wide-angle, rather than intimate, we spend most of our time on an epic scale and not with the personal resonance of the characters who populate this epic. In its ambition, anger and density, we feel acutely the enormity of persecution and fragility of human dignity when it’s contingent on the tolerance, rather than acceptance, of others. Yet we seldom are brought inside any one of Leopoldstadt’s dozens of characters because the tide of oppression is indeed mammoth and mostly conveyed with big ideas.
In the second act, Leo (Luke Thallon), who escaped to Britain at eight-years-old to assimilate that national identity, gives a speech about his pride in the British’s ‘sense of fair play’ and ‘granting of asylum’, and the house audibly scoffed. Palpably, we are reminded that, still, so many of us must live ‘with a bag packed’. Reminiscent of Pinter’s later work that became more politically direct and furious whilst departing from the drama of attraction and personal expectation, Stoppard does not shy from the rueful or advisory.
Although Hermann is one of the only characters for whom we witness a dramatic journey in his own lifetime, we see a diminished and lonely symmetry in the meeting of the Merz and Jakobovicz heirs, Leo and Nathan (who returned to Austria) in 1955. The legions of supernumeraries in this sprawling, angry tale are no more. With a fermata of anguish and a last word of ‘Auschwitz’, the story ends with no pat platitude about survival, family or hope. The scale of the feeling and history is plenty provocative even if somehow emotionally distant. Stoppard plays a correct and theatrically brave note; one from which you will need to compose yourself afterwards.
Review by Mary Beer
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a manufacturer and baptised Jew married to Catholic Gretl, has moved up in the world. Gathered in the Merz apartment in a fashionable part of the city, Hermann’s extended family are at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s epic yet intimate drama. By the time we have taken leave of them, Austria has passed through the convulsions of war, revolution, impoverishment, annexation by Nazi Germany and – for Austrian Jews – the Holocaust in which 65,000 of them were murdered. It is for the survivors to pass on a story which hasn’t ended yet.
The cast includes Sebastian Armesto, Jenna Augen, Rhys Bailey, Joe Coen, Mark Edel-Hunt, Clara Francis, Ilan Galkoff, Caroline Gruber, Sam Hoare, Natalie Law, Noof McEwan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jake Neads, Aaron Neil, Alexander Newland, Yasmin Paige, Adrian Scarborough, Griffin Stevens, Ed Stoppard, Luke Thallon, Eleanor Wyld and Alexis Zegerman. The children’s cast, comprising three sets of five children, includes Toby Cohen, Zachary Cohen, Olivia Festinger, Tamar Laniado, Maya Larholm, Daniel Lawson, Louis Levy, Libby Lewis, Jack Meredith, Chloe Raphael, Beatrice Rapstone and Montague Rapstone.
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Booking to 13th June 2020