Not for nothing does the image of a cat’s cradle dominate the marketing campaign for Leopoldstadt, the latest and – can this be? – quite possibly the last play from Tom Stoppard. Now 82, Sir Tom is responsible for a matchless catalogue of plays that, collectively and singly, have themselves amounted to many a cat’s cradle, conjoining an intricate amalgam of intellectual daring and historical savvy that, at their best (Arcadia, The Invention of Love, Travesties), deliver a knockout blow to the heart as well.
So it comes as something of a surprise to note the ways in which Leopoldstadt constitutes something else again, while keeping at least one foot in the dizzying Stoppardian landscape we know so well. At times during the first act, you feel Stoppard nodding towards Travesties here (that play was set in Zurich, this one in Vienna, and both traffic in big historical names, whether seen or only referenced) or Arcadia there: Stoppard’s actor-son Ed does beautifully by the smallish role of a mathematician named Ludwig, whose musings on the Riemann Series Theorem recall this actor’s splendid occupancy of the comparably hypothesis-minded Valentine in Arcadia on the West End in 2009.
After a while, however, Leopoldstadt starts to keep time to a newly linear rhythm that feels different for Stoppard, just as the origins of this play are. The salient point here is that a writer born Tomas Straussler in Moravia, only with time to become the defining theatrical wordsmith of the English theater, is for the first time facing down his past and as the material for his valedictory, no less. Most playwrights begin with the edict “write what you know,” but Stoppard has taken a half-century to arrive at this very place.
The result is a Stoppard play that drifts in and out of actually feeling like a Stoppard play. To be sure, only this writer could have concocted the hustle and bustle of the opening act, set in 1899 on the vaunted cusp of a new century that will turn out to be far worse than any of these festive season celebrants – the Christmas tree is bedecked with a star of David – could ever anticipate.
The programme offers a helpful Merz family tree so that we can follow the differing generations of this mixture of Jews and gentiles or, in the case of the wonderful Adrian Scarborough’s bearded Hermann Merz, the lineage of a Jewish businessman married to a Catholic, Gretl (Faye Castelow), who believes in assimilation as the way forward: Stoppard all but sends up a knotty familial weave that might put even a Jane Austen novel to shame when he characterises someone as “your sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s grandson.” Several performers, the fast-rising Luke Thallon among them, play two roles, which allows Thallon to close out proceedings as the breezily a-historical Leo, who sounds a lot like Stoppard’s portrait of himself as an unenlightened young man. If only someone could tell Leo that he would go on to write a play in which his name is embedded in the title.
Leopoldstadt's empathic director, Patrick Marber, led Travesties to renewed glory in London and on Broadway several seasons ago, and he does wonders in the first act clarifying any potential confusion and allowing our focus to shift as needed, even when the unsurprising revelation of the play – no genuine spoilers needed here – is the degree to which this extended household within the once-Jewish Viennese district of Leopoldstadt will be decimated by the Holocaust. The action post-intermission moves through Kristallnacht to come to rest, post-WWII, in a final scene that doubles as a requiem and as Stoppard’s deep-from-the-heart tribute to a Jewish ancestry of which he was only made aware in later life. (A programme essay by the author movingly lays out Stoppard’s religious awakening.)
At this point, and most unusually for Stoppard, the play so fully signposts the grievous events of the 20th century that you may well feel you have been here before. Whereas Jumpers, to cite just one Stoppard play out of many, immediately transports a viewer into a deliciously altered mental limbo of the imagination, Leopoldstadt has an instructive reason for being. Not for nothing does a compellingly febrile Sebastian Armesto in the final scene remark accusingly to Thallon’s Leo, “You live without history” – which, one feels within the realm of Leopoldstadt, is not to live at all.
That a large-cast production (41 in all, including three sets of children) has such vibrancy and shimmer owes a huge debt to Marber’s keen eye and to a gorgeous design from Richard Hudson (The Lion King), whose painterly imagining of the Merz family home is rendingly stripped bare as the decades pass. Multiple Tony winner Neil Austin’s lighting is both seductive and austere, as required by the onward march of a history that, the play suggests, is ripe for recurrence, unless we open our eyes as Stoppard himself has done. I confess to missing some of the inimitable fizz and crackle that send you from many a Stoppard success headily into the night. But Leopoldstadt comes from a different place of lamentation, and for that reason, along with many others, represents a bittersweet swan song even if the Hermann in me – that’s to say, ever the optimist – wonders whether Stoppard will once more, and with luck, be back.