The most eagerly anticipated new play of the current London season is Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. It’s his first since the ambitious, intellectually clotted The Hard Problem (2015), which was about the hard problem of defining consciousness.
In Leopoldstad, which may also be his last, he is more concerned with conscience rather than consciousness as he elegiacally recounts the devastating history of European Jewry in the first half of the 20th century.
Though there is nothing in it that hasn’t already been documented in countless books, plays, films and the plethora of TV documentaries, especially this year, being the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the annihilation of 6 million Jews under the Nazis must never be forgotten. There can never be too many reminders of the Holocaust, and Stoppard’s contribution to an already vast body of work on this subject is a major event.
In his vast canon of work, Stoppard has never set out to pluck the heartstrings of his audience. Laughter, intellectual brilliance, dazzling concepts and stimulating wordplay have been his trademarks ever since he announced his arrival with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966.
But you’ll find very little of any of the above in Leopoldstad, which, without being totally autobiographical, is the result of his discovery about 30 years ago that his mother’s family were Jewish, several of whom perished in concentration camps.
Until he was made aware of his antecedents, Stoppard – real name Tomas Straussler – never considered himself a Jew. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, emigrated to Britain and adopted the name Stoppard when his mother married an Englishman after his father’s death.
He surfaces in the play as a character called Leo (Luke Thallon), who, in the final and most moving scene – set in 1955 – has his memory challenged concerning some childhood events that took place in 1938.
Memories weave their way through the fabric of the text, beginning with a typical family-album tableau in 1899. Stoppard relocates the setting from Czechoslovakia to a well-appointed Viennesse apartment shared by Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough), a successful textile manufacturer, his wife Gretl (Faye Castelow) and his imposing mother Emilia (Caroline Gruber).
It’s Christmas. The Merz’s extended family have gathered to celebrate the holiday, and Hermann’s son Jacob puts the finishing touch to an imposing Christmas tree by placing a Star of David on the top of it. What, you wonder, is going on? Jews celebrating Christmas as they might celebrate Rosh Hashanah?
Except that ever since the age of nine, Hermann, though Jewish by birth, has never really considered himself a Jew. He has married out of the faith (his wife Gretel is Catholic), and he takes his total assimilation into Viennese society for granted, confident that the new century will bring him further prosperity both professionally and culturally. (Gretl has been painted by Klimt.) As he puts it, “We are Austrians of Jewish descent.”
But as the play progresses, complications, both personal and political, rear up dramatically. By the second half of the play, The Great War and its aftermath are seen to have taken its toll on the family. Merz’s denial of his religious roots means nothing to the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism becomes a disturbing factor and anyone with a drop of Jewish blood can no longer be awarded professorships, nor can they become members of the prestigious jockey club.
The Merz apartment has shed its affluent appearance, and as National Socialism overruns Austria, by 1938 the family is in serious trouble. Their Klimt as well as their apartment have been appropriated by the Nazis, as has Hermann’s textile business. Nor does the fact that Hermann is a “mischlinge” (a Jew who is married to a non-Jew) help.
The play’s most chilling scene, which begins in 1938 with the inevitable banging on the Merz’s front door and the dreaded crunch of boots on the stairway, is just one more variation on a the chilling prelude to atrocities that begin with eviction and end in Auschwitz, Dachau and all the other extermination camps throughout Poland and Germany.
Though Leopoldstad is by far Stoppard’s most personal play, it’s his least recognisable in style. There’s a wonderfully droll moment of Stoppardian humour when a visiting gentile banker (Noof McEwan) arrives in the middle of a family bris milah and inadvertently asks for a cigar-cutter; and some characteristic Stoppardian wordplay when it is noted that Evian is “naive” spelled backwards. There’s even a nod in the direction of the playwright’s passion for mathematics through the character of Hermann’s math-obsessed brother-in-law Ludwig (Ed Stoppard, Tom’s son).
Uncharacteristically, though, the story is presented as a linear narrative with no time equations or tantalising obfuscations. In its structure and character delineation it could have been written by any competent playwright rather than Britain’s greatest living one.
It also employs the largest cast (40) with which Stoppard has ever juggled, and it is left to director Patrick Marber to clarify who exactly is who. This is especially problematic in the first scene. With so many characters vying for attention, there is, inevitably, a distinctly claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. Also, because of the vast gap in time between scenes, it sometimes felt as though I was ploughing my way through a 1500-page novel by skipping a few hundred pages every now and then.
Benefiting from Richard Hudson’s ever-evolving period sets, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting, Marber does his best to camouflage the play’s initial sketchiness. It’s in the more substantial set pieces, such as a Passover dinner, the eviction of the Merz family from their home after the Anschluss and Kristelnacht, and in the heartbreaking penultimate scene, that he is at his most focused.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with Scarborough’s Hermann Merz and Thallon as Leo giving the two standout performances.
The very last word uttered in this flawed but powerful family chronicle is “Auschwitz.” That says it all.