The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Spring 2020
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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