Wyndham’s Theatre until October 30th 2021
Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt would have been better as a TV mini-series rather than this sprawling, over-populated two and a quarter hour play without an intermission. It is a long watch and although eminently worthwhile, feels too much like a history lesson.
Stoppard mines his own family history (he was born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia) but shifts the action to the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna, a handy way of incorporating famous Viennese figures like Freud, Mahler, and Herzl into lengthy discussions about Jewish identity. We are in the household of the Merz family, starting in 1899. They are Jews but not ‘proper Jews’, in other words they feel that they are totally assimilated into contemporary Austrian society, and indeed have often married outside their faith. They observe Christmas, and baptisms occur as often as circumcisions. The extended family includes university professors and business owners, and the anti-semitism of the time is subtle and coded. By the end of the play we learn of their terrible fate. In between times key moments in history, and the consequences for the family, are evoked, and a screen showing black and white stills and film periodically fills the gap between scenes to add context.
This is Stoppard’s most personal play, and both the meta-playfulness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the weary heaviness of The Hard Problem are long gone. But what should have been a lively and emotionally fraught family history is weighed down by too many characters (after a while you tend to lose track of who is who and how they relate) and dialogue which is expository rather than conversational (and if you are seated near the back of the auditorium, much of that is lost). The only genuine tension occurs in a terrifying scene near the middle of the play in which the Nazis commandeer the family apartment.
At a time when we fear for ethnic minorities in places like Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria, the themes of this play are as relevant as ever. A pity, then, that as a piece of theatre it is too long and weighty to deliver a real punch.
Graham Buchan © 2021.