Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Leopoldstadt follows four generations of an Austrian, Jewish family living in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century, amidst an atmosphere of rising anti-Semitism which culminates in the Holocaust with devastating consequences for the family. Director Patrick Marber brings alive Stoppard’s script packed with the usual witticisms and intertextual references, whilst doing great justice to Stoppard’s first exploration of his own Jewish heritage. A character introduced at the end of the play, Leo, is a thinly disguised young Tom Stoppard, who himself had forgotten about his Jewish identity after he fled to England as a young boy. He was raised an Englishman by his mother and stepfather, just like Leo. Leo raves about his good luck assuming an English identity, resonating with an article Tom Stoppard wrote in 1999, saying his stepfather indoctrinated him with his belief that ‘to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life’ (a Cecil Rhodes quotation). In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Stoppard also recalls discovering more about his Jewish heritage when his aunt came to London and drew him a family tree, which is precisely how Leo discovers his Jewish family in Leopoldstadt. However, in the same interview, Stoppard downplays Leopoldstadt’s autobiographical connection, pointing to the difference in nationality; his own family were Czech; and in the characters’ experiences to his own. Yet in a first collaboration with his father, Stoppard’s actor son Ed Stoppard has a prominent part, playing a mathematician called Ludwig. He says in an interview with The Guardian: ‘doing this play, I’ve never felt more connected to my heritage’.
Half-way through the play, the head of the family Hermann Merz, portrayed convincingly by Adrian Scarborough, proclaims something along the lines of ‘why does anyone work if not to afford culture’. Indeed, this theme recurs throughout the play: the second most treasured thing, after family, is culture. This serves as an important reasoning for restitution efforts today; with cultural artefacts having outlived their original owners, their return can go at least a little way towards compensation for family lost. In Leopoldstadt, the family relishes in music, artworks, books read aloud to children, the intellectual thought of Freud, Herzl and Riemann. Vienna is painted accurately as the hub for cultural activity. Stoppard’s clever appropriation of the Adele Bloch-Bauer story with the Klimt portrait of Merz’s wife Gretl that is requisitioned by the Nazis, plays on the audience’s past emotional reaction to the former, enriching the narrative without having to pursue the question of restitution in the play itself.
Certainly, the play packs in a multitude of clichés in portrayals of the war: property requisitioning, looted artworks resurfacing in the Belvedere, hyperbolically diabolical Nazi officers. However, Stoppard is particularly unflinching in his presentation thereof, and it is never a more relevant and important time to remember and continue learning from history as now, 75 years after the Red Army liberated the concentration camps. Besides, it is not the abundance of tropes so much as the family relationships, the concepts of memory and identity as are intensely debated throughout and the hollowing sense of loss which make this play so powerful. Further, there are very original scenes which show Stoppard has left no stone unturned in his research. A subplot involving an affair later twists into a demonstration of how some Jewish parents, in an attempt to protect their children and their assets, faked birth certificates. Martin Guilbert’s book The Righteous details the invaluable role of the Catholic clergy throughout Europe in providing blank baptismal certificates from which to create false documents. The all-star cast enliven Stoppard’s script; Sebastian Armesto’s performance (as Nathan) in the last scene is particularly notable. As the surviving three characters scrutinize their memories, Armesto’s inappropriate fit of manic laughter at the pure tragedy of their histories dissolves into sobs, triggering a long period of awkward silence which left the audience incredibly ill at ease. This made the end exposition of the entire cast all the more moving to the audience, whose audible sobs and sniffles accompanied the curtain fall.
Credit must be given to Stoppard for breaking his own rule – that of personal distance to the narrative, which enabled the delivery of this rich and harrowing masterpiece on humanity. Sobering indeed is the realisation that issues at the heart of this play remain relevant in today’s socio-political context.