Leopoldstadt at Wyndham’s Theatre
Tom Stoppard’s new play is his most personal yet, and possibly his last. Exploring Jewish identity and spanning nearly six decades, Leopoldstadt is a grand and ambitious work that is historically astute and emotionally pertinent.
In the cultural melting pot of Vienna, 1899, the Mertz and Jakobovicz families are celebrating Christmas. Though some of the members are Jewish, others have married outside the faith, like Hermann (a singular performance from Adrian Scarborough). His Gentile wife Gretl – also played excellently by Faye Castelow – is a confident Catholic woman who follows her desires freely. The two lineages are content in their current setting; German nationalism is yet to occur. Through Stoppard’s detailed script, the complexities of Jewish identity comes to the fore; Hermann is adamant that they are fully integrated into Viennese society, as he exclaims: “We’re the torchbearers of assimilation.”
Patrick Marber’s solid direction successfully administers the cast of over twenty – an achievement nothing short of miraculous. Richard Hudson’s opulent set design invites viewers into a bourgeois home, complemented with delicate and resonant sound textures by Adam Cork. Plenty of expository conversations and soliloquies abound, relationships between the extended families becoming challenging to follow, so Leopoldstadt sometimes meanders into dense territory, with the playwright attempting to include too many characters in his lengthy piece. Yet it is the quietly threatening events which keep audiences absorbed; we don’t see the horrors of Anschluss or Kristallnacht, apart from a Nazi interrogation in one harrowing scene, weighty with foreboding events.
Largely a family drama, the play shifts focus between identity politics and burgeoning German antisemitism. There are references to Jews being “perpetual outsiders” and allusions to the Israel newly formed by the British mandate and United Nations, foreshadowing the present political climate in the Middle East. Despite these sombre matters, and though the seriousness never dissipates, there are humorous one-liners, particularly in the first act by Hermann and his sharp mathematician brother-in-law Ludwig (Ed Stoppard).
The concluding finale sees two Jewish adults, Nathan (Sebastian Armesto) and Leo (most comparable to the playwright) in conversation, where we hear what happened to their families in one-word answers; “Auschwitz,” “Dachau,” hauntingly spare. Stoppard’s exploration of his religious and ethnic roots make for a thought-provoking piece – he had discovered he was Jewish only a decade earlier – that will surely resonate with not only audiences from similar backgrounds, but anyone with an awareness of one of the most devastating periods in modern history.
Leopoldstadt is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 20th February until 13th June 2020. For further information or to book visit the play’s website here.