Tom Stoppard's latest play blends Austrian history with what happened to a middle class Jewish family in this seminal work...
“A Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town.
But he can’t not be a Jew.”
Tom Stoppard’s plays are brilliant, peopled full of characters that stay with you. Leopoldstadt may be his last play as he has suggested, but I think it is his most personal. It is about a Jewish family who in 1899 are living in an affluent area of Vienna and although this Merz-Jacobvicz family are fictional, they bear many resemblances to Stoppard’s own heritage and other Jewish families of the twentieth century. The research is detailed and accomplished and comes in the form of dialogue that is never overstated or overly long.
Hermann Metz (Adrian Scarborough) is head of the family textile manufacturing business and is married to a Christian gentile, the beautiful Gretl (Faye Castelow). Hermann converted to Christianity long before he met Gretl and his mother Emilia (Caroline Gruber) quips that Hermann and Gretl’s son Jacob (Jarlan Bogolubov) was baptised and circumcised in the same week.
In the first scene the grandmother is looking at a photo album, “Who are they?” she asks. Part of Stoppard’s theme is the intermarriage of Jewish and Gentile families and having carried out a DNA test recently, I too can proudly claim Jewish heritage as well as Christian.
Hermann and his brother in law Ludwig Jakobvicz (Ed Stoppard) talk about multicultural and multinational Vienna but Ludwig, a teacher of mathematics, tells about the prejudice towards Jewish academics. Hermann recalls only fifty years ago when Jews only lived on the outskirts in a ghetto called Leopoldstadt. They wore a yellow patch and stepped off the pavement to make way for Austrians. Just as the family may think things are improving, with hindsight we dread what is coming.
They debate the call for a Jewish homeland and weigh up the lack of attraction of living among goatherds in the Middle East compared to the cultural heights, the arts, music, literature and journalism they have in Europe.
1900 dawns and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) confides in Gretl about a handsome dragoon Fritz (Luke Thallon) she has met. Gretl’s portrait is being painted by, we presume, Gustav Klimt. The Hanna, Gretl, Fritz, Hermann story will have ramifications for later in the play, as will the portrait, and is the first direct evidence of voiced anti-Semitism.
After the interval we jump to 1924, two decades on in modernity and the portrait of Gretl by Klimt is on the wall. One family member has died fighting for Austria in the Great War and Jacob (Sebastian Armesto) has lost an arm. “What a triumph for the Peace Treaty to re-draw the map of Europe so four million German speaking Austrians wake up as Italians, Czechs, Poles, Yugoslavians . . . “
Interspersed with national events we see the family at the Seder, the traditional Passover meal, and later at the bris for the baby with mixed feeling from the baby’s mother about circumcision on one so small. There is great humour when a visiting banker is mistaken for the bris milah (circumciser). They talk about the terrible economic state of the country and galloping inflation. As they discuss the movement towards unification of German speakers and the 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, the soundscape alters and we start to hear aircraft filling the skies.
1938 has some preparing to leave for England and through the family we hear what limitations are being placed on Jewish life. Kristallnacht: A man (Mark Edel-Hunt) wearing a long belted coat with a swastika armband tells the family that they must leave their house. The scene is shocking in the language used against this family, which is sinister, vicious and full of hatred. The family are given permission to pack a single suitcase with no item worth more than 15 marks and have to leave their home by noon on the next day.
Post war, Rosa (Jenna Augen) who has lived in New York comes back to Vienna to meet with her nephew Nathan (Sebastian Armesto) and her cousin Leo (Luke Thallon). The photograph from 1899 is recreated and we hear the dreadful outcomes of the family we have grown to love. The portrait of Gretl is saved by the greed of the mob of looters but getting it back is complex.
The drawing room of the Merz house in 1899 has a huge mirror at the rear, a dining table for two dozen and hanging over the stage is an empty picture frame. The costumes reflect the affluence and era but in later scenes there are less luxurious surroundings. The Christmas tree surprises in the first scene but is indicative of the Jewish/Christian blend in Hermann’s family.
Stoppard’s achievement here is of a family saga with real people and touches of family humour set against the backdrop of history in the twentieth century. If only this story could reach those still spouting anti-Semitism who may be unlikely to be in the theatre. What the audience can do is to speak out against anti-Semitism wherever they find it. Patrick Marber directs as naturally as if we were there in that room a part of the family.
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
Jarlan Bogolubov/Faniel Lawson/Ramsay Robertson
Maya Larholm/Libby Lewis/Beatrice Rapstone
Olivia Festinger/Tamar Laniado/Chloe Raphael
Director: Patrick Marber
Set Designer: Richard Hudson
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound Designer and Original Music: Adam Cork
Movement Director: EJ Boyle
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Booking: from 7th August to 30th October 2021
Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DA
Phone: 0844 482 5151
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Wyndham’s Theatre on 13th February 2020