'Leopoldstadt': Theater Review

Marc Brenner
From left: Ed Stoppard, Alexis Zegerman, Faye Castelow and Adrian Scarborough in 'Leopoldstadt'
Quietly devastating.
6/13/2020

Tom Stoppard goes back to his roots with this family portrait of sophisticated Austrian Jews in early 20th century Vienna, starring Adrian Scarborough, Faye Castelow and Ed Stoppard.

In recent interviews, the playwright Tom Stoppard has mused that his latest, Leopoldstadt, may be his last work — not because he's planning on dying anytime soon, but he writes slowly, and you just never know when you're 82. If that's the case, then this heady drama, marbled with autobiographical echoes and career-long preoccupations, will provide a rewarding seam for a final chapter exegesis in future literary biographies. Full of wistful, low-sun melancholy, black humor and rage, Leopoldstadt is very much a late-career play like, say, A Winter's Tale but minus the magical happy ending. And like many late-career plays, it's a little out of step with the oeuvre but somehow more interesting for it.

Arguably, Leopoldstadt is less stringently cerebral than some of Stoppard's most acclaimed works (see Travesties, Arcadia), and less ludic and Pirandellian than the plays that really built his brand (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound). But with its relatable meditation on pre- and post-Holocaust secular Jewish identity, survivors' guilt and the fragility of memory, it might just end up being one of the most accessible and commercially successful theatrical works from the latter part of his career.

Directed by fellow playwright Patrick Marber (Closer), this production is set to run through June 13, but will surely travel well beyond the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End. 

From the moment the house bell tolls, advising the audience to take their seats, grainy old photographs are projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage, showing images of unidentified people in turn-of-the-century dress, faces from some stranger's book of the dead. That mystery about who these elegantly coiffed but anonymous folk might be turns out to be central to the text, which hinges on the volatility of memory.

"It's like a second death to lose your name in a family album," says Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber) in the first scene, words that darkly foreshadow the many deaths and losses to come. Although the story is about a fictional extended family living in Vienna, this decades-spanning, compact epic was inspired by parts of Stoppard's own family history, a saga starting not in Vienna but in the Czech Republic's Zlin, where he was born in 1937.

An excerpt in the program from a 1999 article Stoppard wrote for Talk magazine reveals that he has recycled and repurposed here some names of his own relatives, a piercing anecdote about a scar, and a chilling call-and-response originally between himself and an elderly relative about what happened to the many unknown names she wrote down for him on a family tree. The answer is nearly always some variation on "died in Auschwitz."

But before the train stops at that dark, end-of-the-line vanishing point at the play's end, the beginning is a joyous group portrait of a typically heterogenous, multi-faith Viennese family in 1899. In a lofty drawing room several cuts above what relatives just a generation or two before could have ever afforded, members of the Merz and Jakobovicz clans schmooze and booze as the children decorate the Christmas tree.

It says everything about this laid-back, Bohemian (in every sense) gaggle that everyone laughs when a kid puts a golden Star of David at the top of tree. In a few months, they'll have a Passover seder to balance out celebrating this most gentile of holidays. That's only fair given that several members of the family have either been "Christianized," like textile magnate Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough), or are natural born goyim like Hermann's soignee wife Gretl (Faye Castelow), a society beauty who is having her portrait painted by Gustav Klimt.

Herman's more traditional sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman), however, has kept it in the family by marrying another Jew, mathematician Ludwig (Ed Stoppard, the playwright's real-life son); his sister Wilma (Clara Francis), her gentile doctor husband Ernst (Aaron Neil) and Ludwig's as-yet-unmarried sister Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) all join in the rabble, as the younger generation plays together around the grown-ups' feet. It's not strictly necessary to keep track of who's whose sister or uncle, but those who want to play along at home can study a handy family tree in the program and the cast list; the network of lineage connecting the different characters is as complex as a cat's cradle.

Speaking of cat's cradle, this ancient children's game with string plays a significant role in the symbolic economy of the story (and a starring role in the production's marketing artwork). Evoking Stoppard's long fascination with math and science and its intersection and/or clash with the humanities, cat's cradles feature in a technical discussion between Ludwig and young Nathan (played as a tween by Rhys Bailey, and as an adult by Sebastian Armesto) about spatial coordinates and how things can appear to change even though they haven't.

That fits the way this room stays fixed in space even as the configuration of characters changes drastically over time as the action moves in staccato jumps, first to the spring of 1900, then 1924 when the families gather for a bris, and then on to a key night in 1938 when everything literally begins to shatter. A final coda in 1955 rounds out the story, with Luke Thallon (superb also elsewhere as a sneering Austrian soldier) as Leo, a surrogate for Stoppard himself, a somewhat smug and foppish assimilated Brit who meets up with distant relatives back in Vienna.

Given the number of characters and the scale of the story, Stoppard and especially Marber manage to spin this flossy skein together with tight twists and remarkable fluidity. There is almost none of the windy bagginess that some viewers find indigestible in Stoppard's later work (the nine-hour cycle The Coast of Utopia comes to mind). Instead, it's all lean, bien cuit and only lightly seasoned with philosophical and historical musings, although some Stoppard superfans may miss that intellectual meatiness. What's left is something more emotionally pure: the raw pain of loss, scars caused by barely remembered mishaps, a portrait whose sitter doesn't even have a name anymore.

The gradual winnowing away of detail is mirrored in Richard Hudson's evocative set design, which gets reduced down to little more than a wooden box by the end, the same way the palette of colors seems to contract from golds and greens to dusty blacks. Meanwhile, mirroring the dimming visuals, full stereoscopic sound design by Adam Cork fills the theater with the thunderous sound of approaching Luftwaffe planes and breaking glass. It's a pretty textbook exercise in less is more aesthetics, making for a devastating drama of subtraction.

Venue: Wyndham's Theatre, London
Cast: Sebastian Armesto, Jenna Augen, Rhys Bailey, Faye Castelow, Joe Coen, Felicity Davidson, Mark Edel-Hunt, Clara Francis, Ilan Galkoff, Caroline Gruber, Sam Hoare, Natalie Law, Avye Leventis, Noof McEwan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jake Neads, Aaron Neil, Alexander Newland, Yasmin Paige, Adrian Scarborough, Sadie Shimmin, Griffin Stevens, Ed Stoppard, Luke Thallon, Eleanor Wyld, Alexis Zegerman, Jarian Bogolubov, Toby Cohen, Zachary Cohen, Olivia Festinger, Tamar Lanaido, Maya Larholm, Daniel Lawson, Louis Levy, Libby Lewis, Jack Meredith, Chloe Raphael, Beatrice Rapstone, Montague Rapstone, Ramsay Robertson, Joshua Schneider  
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Patrick Marber
Set designer: Richard Hudson
Costume designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Movement: E. J. Boyle
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Scott Rudin, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Scott M. Delman/Patrick Gracev, in association with Rupert Gavin, 1001 Nights Productions, Nica Burns, Burnt Umber Productions, Bradford W. Edgerton, Eilene Davidson Productions, Richard Winkler