Seen on first preview night.
Leopoldstadt is a district of Vienna known for its Jewish population but with a very mixed history of Christian and Jewish inhabitants over the centuries. Playwright Tom Stoppard, whose original name was Tomas Straussler, escaped from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with his family and eventually ended up in England. This is the first time even a hint of autobiography has featured in a Stoppard play, and the first time he’s explored his central European Jewish heritage in writing. He has deliberately set it in Vienna rather than the country of his birth but there are clear parallels with his own life.
Leopoldstadt the play is the story of two fictional inter-married Viennese Jewish families: the Merz family and the Jacobovicz family. It’s a sweeping historical document describing what happens to them over the period from the eve of the 20th century right through to post-World War 2, and its five scenes are set on five different dates: 1899, 1900, 1928, 1938 and 1955. It is funny, warm-hearted, fascinating, and ultimately devastating. It has a huge cast of adults and children: over the years more protagonists appear as family members marry, children are born and historical events take place. Do buy the programme as it contains a printed family tree which I found really useful to look at on the train home afterwards.
The families are educated and forward-looking – well-rounded and believable people who live life to the full with humour and emotion. The characters we meet first include a maths professor, a doctor, a would-be concert pianist and a factory owner. As time goes on and we chart the ups and downs of these Jewish families’ experiences in Vienna we see history happening on stage through Prussian officers, communists, bankers and Nazis among others. Tom Stoppard’s plays are always clever in their use of language and breadth of content and this is no exception, with threads of maths, the arts and politics in particular following through the generations. We hear about Mahler, Klimt, Freud and other key figures through the characters’ conversations and arguments. This also feels like a very timely play in that it covers the rise of nationalism, racism and anti-immigration during the first half of the 20th century in Austria with which you can easily draw parallels across Europe and America today.
The play is both epic and intimate and the characters are beautifully drawn and realised. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Scarborough as industrialist and key player Hermann Merz; Faye Castelow as his ethereally beautiful wife Gretl whose portrait is painted by Klimt; Ed Stoppard (the playwright’s son) as mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz; and Luke Thallon as both Prussian officer Fritz and Ludwig’s grown-up grandson Leo. The whole cast is wonderful, including a large company of talented children. The costumes are gorgeously detailed and fit perfectly within the era in which each scene is set. The staging of every scene is the same drawing room in the family house in Vienna, but its furnishings and mood change over time.
We were sitting at the side of the front row of the stalls, where seats were comfortable with good legroom. Although we were looking up, the stage is relatively low so we had a great, close-up view, apart from one or two scenes where furniture on stage slightly blocked our view. The play is still in previews though; members of the production team were in the theatre taking notes on staging and sight-lines, so I think this may well change. I’ve sat right at the back of the stalls at this theatre too and also had a great view of the stage. The theatre is absolutely beautiful inside – a lovely jewellery box with ornate plasterwork. Box office staff, front of house staff, and ushers were helpful, personable and considerate.
The last Tom Stoppard play I saw was the excellent Travesties, directed, as this new play is, by Patrick Marber. I was eagerly expecting this to be a very good play, and, looking at the timeframe that it covers, and the fact that its topic is the history of Jewish families in central Europe, I was obviously assuming that it would be hard hitting. But the way the scenes from 1938 – the year of Kristallnacht – onwards are written and realised is far more devastating and emotional than I could have imagined; this play’s understated portrayal of real events through mere words, and stunning acting, had me and most of the rest of the audience weeping through the final scenes.
The performance I saw on Saturday 25th January 2020 was the very first preview of this play at Wyndham’s. I feel very privileged to have seen the world premiere of what I think will go down in history as one of Stoppard’s best, and most important, plays.