A new play by Tom Stoppard is quite the occasion, a writer long since regarded as one of the UK’s foremost dramatists – a title he may have to scuffle over with David Hare of course. Yet, with writers of such seniority, their output is always compared to some previous golden age, a period in which they created the plays that made their name and are now regarded as hallowed modern classics. You only need casually glance at the work of Alan Bennett, Hare and even Stoppard himself in the last five years to feel the glow of merely lukewarm praise, of critical respect, reverence even, for the man and his legacy but little enthusiasm for the show in front of them.
And Stoppard’s most recent play was in 2015, a head-scratchingly taxing and over-intellectualised examination of the intricacies of human consciousness called The Hard Problem, but Leopoldstadt, only his second play in 10-years, is something else entirely, a much publicised personal story that sees the writer return to form as a commentator of cultural, social and historical patterns, reminding us that with the right topic and a clear vision, he can still write compelling drama… mostly. For Leopoldstadt coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the recent Holocaust Memorial Day.
After a two-week preview period, Press Night takes place this week and given that it is a topic we see so rarely on stage (far more often on film where the experience is more easily explored), Stoppard’s play is a rare and ambitious undertaking. So there are two quite separate questions to consider – does it have something important to add to our collective understanding of this period of history and is it good drama?
The play does not offer a straightforward narrative about the inception, causes and aftermath of the Holocaust, there are no scenes in the ghettos or concentration camps, no acts of physical violence in a period we should already know well, as the timeline of fascism and its monstrous consequences resonate throughout the 1930s and Second World War. Instead, Stoppard is concerned with context, the long history of social isolation, as well as the political and financial suspicion inflicted on Jewish businessmen, intellectuals and families throughout the nineteenth and early twenty-century. It is a context that Stoppard evokes with skill in Act One as an extended family gather at Christmas in 1899 to consider the possibilities of a new century and again in 1900 as the first signs of change are felt.
It is important to note that Stoppard’s story is very particularly situated within the bourgeois of Vienna, that this is a family of means, of education and cultural enrichment who have access to the upper echelons of local society in what is a comfortable, relatively easy existence. Thus the shadow of the titular Leopoldstadt, a ghetto in the very heart of Vienna, weighs heavy over the play, simultaneously indicating in 1899-1900 how far the family have climbed and how close they always are to losing everything, especially when they cannot realise it. And you don’t have to wait too long to hear its name as Hermann Merz, the patriarch of Stoppard’s story and the owner of the beautiful house in which the entirety of the action takes place, describes when Jews were once confined to it, not in future of the 1930s but earlier in his lifetime.
History we know repeats itself, and Stoppard’s play shows how painfully often this has happened to the Jewish population of Europe. We are made to feel sharply in Act One that the social rise from Leopoldstadt to semi-acceptance and prosperity and back again to Leopoldstadt is the work of only a couple of generations, how frighteningly fast the political phases of a nation can wax and wane. Stoppard is intricately concerned with the superficiality of assimilation and the genetic inheritance of faith and experience that so dominated Nazis categorisation. And in doing so, he exposes the duel undercurrents of earned social value and temporary patriotism that conflict his characters when logic, fairness and reason hit squarely against the continued “otherness” of this family that manifests as enduring limitations on their freedom.
This is explored in two especially good conversations that bookend the play; the first is in Act One as brothers-in-law Hermann and Ludwig debate their achievements and civic aspirations. The integrationist Hermann has married a Christian woman and been baptised, believing entirely that his achievements and behaviour will eventually grant him and his children the absolute equality and respect he craves from his Aryan neighbours. He has made himself one of them in every possible way. By contrast, mathematician and university Professor Ludwig believes the opposite, that all attempts at social climbing are permanently stymied by their faith and family origins, that others will always perceive their Jewishness first whatever else they may have to contribute.
It is an entirely Stoppardian conversation, one that unites the forces of science and cultural endeavor as an insight into human behaviour and systems of trust which, although fact-laden, is written as a credible debate between two intellectual men trying to understand their place in the world, a tussel you feel they have had many times before.
The second conversation comes at the end of the play as descendants of these men meet a decade after the war to find their once close family and shared history is now scattered and partially forgotten. Broken by his experience in the camps and having lived through all the brutality and degradation the Nazis could inflict, Nathan meets his relative Leo who escaped to London with his mother in 1938 and is now an English gentleman in every respect. Leo’s knowledge of the war, disinterestedness in his family’s experience and unwillingness to even recognise their shared identity is eventually eroded by Nathan who probes at Leo’s memory in order to broker that lost connection in his mind. The “otherness” in this sense then becomes a shared experience of faith and blood, Leo’s being (now) English with no physical experience of being there, for Stoppard, is no excuse for ignorance.
You may think it is a strange choice not to stage the Holocaust itself and instead to cover Kristallnacht and then leap ahead to 1955, yet what Stoppard is doing is exploring heritage, the expansion and erasure of family over time but within which the (hopeful) seeds of continuation remain. Leopoldstadt is really a conversation the playwright is having with himself about the tide of affairs across the early to mid-twentieth century and how the experience of Jewish families should be analysed and commemorated through patterns of interaction, memory and the physical rites of faith, enacted as much for their religious significance as for their habitual existence in gathering families together, a fact Ludwig is the first to grasp in Act One.
This is what makes Leopoldstadt so interesting and its success as drama is almost secondary to the question the playwright asks of himself about what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century, and as the political sands once again shift to the insular where all kinds of otherness are feared, how long, even after something as scarring and inexplicable as the Holocaust, can peace and assimilation really last?
But drama is the medium Stoppard has chosen for this discussion and while compelling, the Second Act suffers from over-complication as the younger generation and a largely new cast are introduced. Directed by Patrick Marber (himself a renowned writer), there is a wonderful immersiveness to the first Act as lives, love affairs and interactions of all kinds go on in fairly typical fashion, much of which is hugely enjoyable, well written and more relevant to the later plot that the audience can yet know. But, as the story lurches forward to 1924, 1938 and 1955, we feel less and less grounded in the individual lives of the family. 1924 is a particular failure and regardless of the projected family tree at the start of the play, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of who everyone is and how they relate back to Hermann and Ludwig.
Perhaps it isn’t supposed to matter but if Stoppard dangles a family tree in front of an audience it does suggest the specifics of “who” actually matter far more than they really do in the play and after investing so credibly in the characters in Act One, it becomes a little difficult to follow exactly what is going on and why. This decision is not aided by the mixed approach to casting where some actors play their same character into old age while others appear in multiple roles which makes it even harder to keep track especially from the circle and balcony where you can barely see the faces of the actors anyway.
Adrian Scarborough is such an asset to any Company and of the few fully fleshed-out roles his Hermann is easily the most interesting and sympathetic. A man navigating the duties of husband, father and business owner with his own desire to find acceptance in the social hierarchy is full of fascinating variation. You feel for him especially during the events of the second half of the play as dreams and stratagems are broken by the virulent forces of Antisemitism, but Scarborough’s Hermann remains hopeful and on one especially pleasing occasion, cunning.
If this play is about legacy, then the inclusion of Ed Stoppard in the cast as Ludwig is symbolic and meaningful. The character represents the rise of intellectualism and cultural expansiveness built on the logic and consistency of the mathematician. Ludwig looks for theories but recognises and accepts his outsider status which Stoppard Junior delivers credibly and, while his contribution to later scenes are too limited, the interior devotion to home and place is quietly and sadly portrayed.
These days, when is a Company not bolstered by the inclusion of Luke Thallon, and after wonderful performances in Pinter Five and Present Laughter, he adds texture to this production with roles as a suave dragoon guard whose Aryan self-assuredness offers an important contrast in Act One with its own codes of honour, while later the innocent cluelessness of 1950s Leo gives rise to a growing rumble of wry laughter from the audience as he avows faith in the British institutions of Parliament, Royalty and Britain’s care for refugees. There is a small but impassioned role for Sebastain Armesto as Nathan who describes the ultimate fate of his family with sensitivity while reeling from the wanton ignorance of Leo that provokes as much anger in Armesto’s interpretation as it does bewilderment.
Notably absent from this role call of key performances are any female actors, and while there are many in the show, their roles unfortunately are lightweight and fairly unremarkable, with only Faye Castelow’s Gretal (Hermann’s wife) a character who noticeably recurs for reasons other than her existence as a mother to the next generation. Such failings add to the earlier-described dramatic issue with the construction of a play that foregrounds the wider context – and most specifically the experience of men – over the detail of family life. Nonetheless, Leopoldstadt has feeling as well as intellect, a very personal reflection on who Stoppard is and what he wants to leave behind. It is a play that above all reminds us that the leap from surface inclusion to decimation is not so far as we’d like to imagine. We are history and history is us, lest we forget.