Wyndham’s Theatre (venue)
13 February 2020 (released)
15 February 2020
According to Stoppard, Leopoldstadt is likely to be his last play and there’s no denying it’s an epic finale. Very closely inspired by his own Czech family history of the same period, Leopoldstadt tells the story of the fictional Austrian Merz family from 1899 to 1955. With a cast of nearly thirty, spanning three generations, the bustle of relatives crowd the stage with life at the start, jostling with familial and intellectual debate. By the final act, only three grand-children remain, returning to the same room in Vienna – to contemplate their decimated family tree. Buy tickets below.
Act 1 opens on Christmas day in 1899. An opulent scene is revealed with a huge family gathering in the high-ceilinged drawing room beneath a vast ornate mirror and a glittering chandelier. Some of the older women are looking at photo albums, ‘they disappear so fast the dead’ and an exuberant grandson mistakenly puts the star of David on top of the huge Christmas tree. Jokes are made about the mingling of catholic and Jewish traditions and it becomes clear that Hermann (played by Adrian Scarborough) is determined to be at the heart of the cultural elite in Vienna. This a family who know Freud, Hermann’s wife Greta is having a portrait painted by Klimt and Theodor Herzl the founder of the Zionist movement, has left his first paper about the State of Israel in their drawing room.
The worship of culture is a theme that Stoppard’s characters return to as anti-Semitism rears its head and the horrors of Viennese history unfold. In 1938 there were 185,000 Jews estimated to be living in Vienna. Of these, about two thirds emigrated and 66,500 were murdered. The Jewish population represented the majority of university graduates and at the heart of the city’s cultural life. For Hermann it is as if of the greatest disappointments is the realisation that ‘Barbarism will not be defeated by culture.’
Despite being his most personal work, Stoppard’s has a quiet gravity, an almost elegiac stillness. It feels as if the play-write has carefully constructed a glimpse into a past that is too painful to remember and too important to forget. Within the sepia tones of Richard Hudson’s design and Marber’s precise, crisp direction, there is warmth and laughter too. Probably the biggest laugh from the audience was an ironic one in the final scene in the empty drawing room 1955. Leo (Luke Thallon), a surrogate for Stoppard who himself lived in England from age eight, speaks of his pride at being British, his pride in the Royal Family and for Britain as ‘a refuge for exiles’. Surely no one could feel that about Britain now.
Leo feels disconnected from his Jewish roots as did Stoppard for much of his life. But when he looks at the scar on his hand and his cousin confronts him about his amnesia, the memories of Kristallnacht begin to return. It feels very much as if Stoppard is reminding both himself and his audience that we cannot live without history, ‘as if you throw no shadow behind you.’
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