sat 11/07/2020

Leopoldstadt, Wyndham's Theatre review - Stoppard at once personal and accessible | reviews, news & interviews

Leopoldstadt, Wyndham's Theatre review - Stoppard at once personal and accessible

Leopoldstadt, Wyndham's Theatre review - Stoppard at once personal and accessible

Director Patrick Marber knits Tom Stoppard's putative swan song into a compelling whole

Novelistic density: the cast of 'Leopoldstadt'Marc Brenner

It’s not uncommon for playwrights to begin their careers by writing what they know, to co-opt a frequently quoted precept about authorial inspiration. So it’s among the many fascinations of Leopoldstadt that Tom Stoppard, at the age of 82, should have written his most personal play and also, very possibly (and sadly), his last. Audiences will surely warm to the news that this bustling dynastic tale leading, as its story necessitates, to unimaginable despair and loss is also among Sir Tom’s most accessible, as well: yes, there are a lot of characters to track, and a glance at the family tree provided in the programme wouldn’t go amiss.

But whereas such Stoppard masterworks as Arcadia and Travesties – my personal favourites from a career that began when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead burst unto the Edinburgh scene in 1966 – have often required glossaries at the ready, Leopoldstadt tells a rending cross-generational story that looks likely to resound directly with playgoers, some of whom might have been tempted previously to give this writer a pass. It also marks a major (and presumably costly) gesture on behalf of the producer Sonia Friedman, given that Stoppard's plays have more often than not begun in the subsidised sector: the National Theatre or, as with Rock 'n' Roll, the Royal Court. Adrian Scarborough in 'Leopoldstadt'In fact, you can see why this one is being launched in the West End, benefitting as it does from the double news value both of Stoppard's first new play in five years at a time when many of his colleagues are downing tools, coupled with a text steeped in Stoppard's own gathering awareness of himself as a Jew. It's not too much of a stretch to see Leopoldstadt, indeed, as a gesture both of tribute and expiation: a man who has enjoyed a long and distinguished life honouring those within his family who, through the cruel vagaries of historical circumstance, were denied that possibility. 

If one misses the ceaseless fizz of, say, Arcadia, as that play's two timelines get pieced together to unforgettably wounding results, Leopoldstadt in its very conception expresses less interest perhaps in individuals seen in the round than in the fate of a family – no, make that a people – who have every reason to embrace the new millennium when we first encounter them in 1899. And so the play begins amidst a whirligig of holiday festivities in the prosperous home of the Merz family, living within the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna: Hermann (a bearded Adrian Scarborough, doing career-best work and pictured above), the Jewish paterfamilias of a manufacturing firm, is married to Gretl (Faye Castelow), a Catholic, and argues on behalf of assimilation: the worst forms of prejudice, Hermann maintains, have been swept aside as part of a long march towards progress. It remains to be discovered – as any playgoer knows already – just how wrong he will turn out to be, and Stoppard mines sweetly observed comedy from the placement of a Star of David atop a Christmas tree or, later, the confusion generated by a family bris. 

The play's first half throbs with the sort of novelistic density that evokes Stoppard in Coast of Utopia mode as various personages emerge in and out of focus. Among them, attention must surely be paid to the anxious Wilma (Clara Francis), who comes to especially vivid grief, and her brother Ludwig, a mathematician played by Stoppard's son Ed (pictured below), whose expostulations about the Riemann Hypothesis recall this splendid actor's embrace of iterated algorithms as a definitive Valentine some years back in Arcadia on the West End. The mighty cultural figures of the time (Mahler, Freud, Klimt) get name checks aplenty as one might expect from a writer who put Joyce and Lenin centre-stage in Travesties, but the focus remains throughout on the shifting fortunes of a family over time across an extramarital affair here, a seder there. We see politesse give way to vehemence and violence, alongside the admonitions in 1938 of an English journalist called Percy (a firm-voiced Sam Hoare), who warns the family into which he is marrying that "Hitler wants a city without Jews, and one way or another he'll get it."

Ed Stoppard as Ludwig in his father's 'Leopoldstadt'The closing scene in 1955 returns us to the same room by this point stripped bare (gone is the Klimt), the language as correspondingly terse as it has been expansive earlier on: the play ends with a reckoning with history that is surely Stoppard’s own in keeping with a playwright who was made only fully aware of his Jewish ancestry in later life. Indeed, Stoppard has neatly written a version of his casually naive younger self in the breezily, determinedly English Leo (Luke Thallon, late of Albion, adroitly juggling two roles) of the final scene, who tells Hermann’s great-nephew Nathan (Sebastian Armesto), “I’m sorry you had a rotten war.”

The image of a cat's cradle appears in the marketing for the play, picking up on its appearance several times over in the text as an apt metaphor for the historical and familial weave that is Stoppard's chosen terrain. It's impossible in context to praise too highly the contribution of a director, Patrick Marber, who revivified Travesties for keeps here and on Broadway and knows how to captivate, not least at those moments when one character is explaining to another "he's your sister-in-law's sister-in-law's grandson". He's abetted by a top-class design team that finds Richard Hudson in appropriately painterly mode even as the richly burnished opening tableau gets emptied out over time. Neil Austin's lighting, alternately lush and austere as required, lands its own body blow in a final scene that jettisons Stoppard's career-long lifeblood, language, to conclude with the repetition of a single word whose landscape of death (as was true in an entirely different context of Arcadia) sends you shivering into the night.

The play ends with a reckoning with history that is surely Stoppard's own

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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