The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Winter-Spring 2020; Summer 2021
Tom Stoppard caps his
illustrious career with a drama that is sweeping, epic, intimate and
overpowering. We may only be in February, but this will unquestionably be
the play of the year.
Leopoldstadt is a play so
controlled and seemingly effortless that only a master could have written
it, and its accomplishment is all the more impressive because it retells a
story we think we are already overly familiar with.
The play covers a
half-century in the lives of a large Jewish family in Vienna – and of
course in that sentence you already see that there is only one direction
the story can go, and a terrible one.
Part of Stoppard's brilliance
is that he doesn't press the point but just lets it hang there in our
awareness through the first half of the play. Instead, he spends his time
casually introducing the characters – or, rather, the family.
It is a group so large and
diverse and yet so closely tied that individuals can repeatedly be
identified as 'my grandmother's second husband's niece' or the like,
knowing that we will have difficulty keeping up with who is who but making
the point that they do not.
It is a family half of whom
have converted to Christianity, largely for convenience in a world of
Anti-Semitism, with no real effect on their relationships as they
celebrate Christmas and Passover with equal enjoyment.
It is a family who can agree
to disagree – in fact, who enjoy disagreeing, with every early scene
including a spirited but friendly debate on something.
What might seem a weakness of
the play's structure – the large cast and movement through generations
means that, despite strong performances throughout, very few individuals
really register – is central to Stoppard's method, as the family itself,
in its shifting and evolving shape, becomes the central character.
The solid reality the
playwright creates is supported by Patrick Marber's fluid and sensitive
direction and by a set design by Richard Hudson that so effectively
creates the illusion of rich detail that it comes as a shock to realise it
is just a table and a few chairs on a largely bare stage.
That sense of texture and
reality informs the whole play as it only gradually becomes evident how
carefully constructed it is. Things that may have seemed incidental or
irrelevant at first take on new meaning when seen in the larger context –
follow the story of a particular painting, for example, or see how a brief
episode of adultery in 1900 allows a whole branch of the family to survive
It is worth pausing to
mention that Stoppard's inspiration for this play was his late-life
reconnection with the Czech Jewish roots he had completely left behind
when he came to Britain as a child. The family in Leopoldstadt is not his,
but the impulse to recreate and make real for today a pre-Holocaust Jewish
And in what he says is almost certainly his last play, the 83-year-old Stoppard's gift to us is this rich and deeply moving picture of what once was.
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