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 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 in 1938.

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 world is.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Leopoldstadt - Wyndham's Theatre 2020
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