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Tom Stoppard’s alleged final play sees him go out on an almighty high, in a weighty and moving drama about the rise and fall of Vienna’s Jewish population
Perhaps it doesn’t have the superhuman dexterity of ‘Arcadia’ or the paradigm-shifting audacity of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, but ‘Leopoldstadt’ still sees Tom Stoppard end his career on a high – if this really is his final play (as the 82-year-old has suggested it might be).
Certainly, it’s an infinitely better way to call it quits than his last outing, ‘The Hard Problem’, a laboured light comedy that elicited wall-to-wall ‘mehs’ at the National in 2015. This weighty work about the rise and fall of Vienna’s Jewish community is unafraid to look and feel like a serious piece of legacy-building.
It follows the sprawling, extended Merz family, who are what you might call Jewish intellectuals, living in the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. When we first meet them, in 1899, they’re free citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a place where Jews have been legally emancipated for over a century. Leopoldstadt itself was once Vienna’s ghetto – now just a distant folk memory of a less enlightened age.
By the final scene, set in 1955, this huge family has been mostly eradicated.
Though fictional, it’s based on autobiography: Stoppard only discovered late in life that his own family was Jewish, and that that was why they’d fled Hitler’s advance into their native Czechoslovakia. His mother had kept him in the dark for decades about his heritage, reasoning that this would protect him if the dark times returned… but history catches up with you, as Stoppard’s stand-in character Leo discovers in the final scene.
The play asks what it means to be Jewish, ethnically, spiritually, in the eyes of one’s own community and in the eyes of others. It asks us to see the fragility of human society, and it deliberately – I think – challenges our ideas about what life must have been like for Jewish people in this era, a corrective to the popularity of nostalgic visions of the shtetl.
It is a play of ideas and facts that crams an enormous amount into just two-and-a-half-hours. It has a vast cast of characters (producer Sonia Friedman has really pulled the stops out, budget-wise), and in order to keep itself ticking over, the dialogue often launches into full-on historical exposition. But it all basically works: Patrick Marber’s production is technically overstuffed and wordy, but it’s incredibly deft and lucid within that. It could have been a TV series, but it is entirely unapologetic about being a play.
If the Merzes that we meet in 1899 are still not entirely embraced by gentile Vienna, there is no doubt that they are integrated. They’re decorating a Christmas tree, for a start, purely because it’s Christmas. And Adrian Scarborough’s insecure, slightly foolish, hard-grafting factory owner Hermann – the nominal head of the family – has recently converted to Catholicism, reasoning it’ll help him get on. But he is right to feel insecure: he has started to hit a series of near imperceptible social barriers stopping him from ever rising all the way to the top.
By 1924, these barriers are a little more perceptible. The First World War has left the family a touch frazzled, and with the empire gone, they’re spooked by the nationalist noises coming from the less cosmopolitan bits of their greatly diminished country. But ultimately the most striking thing about the scene is how modern they all look, dressed in their hip ’20s clothes, with a Klimt on the wall, dancing the charleston to records brought over by their Brooklynite cousin Rosa, here on a visit from the US. It feels almost unimaginable that this will all be destroyed when so many of these objects feel so enduring… but it also feels entirely inevitable, which is why the harrowing 1938 scene that follows can start at such full, desperate tilt.
There are a lot of fine performances, particularly from Scarborough, who remains the story’s through-thread as Hermann, a man who never quite makes of his life what he hopes for, but nonetheless persists at it with a dogged determination. But the real star here is Stoppard, who has, perhaps for the last time, rallied his legions of adjectives and phalanxes of nouns and used them to tell a huge, vital story.
It is a serious and dark play, although there are a couple of classic Stoppardian zingers, including one for the ages in which a banker is confused with a mohel.
The scale of the story, told mostly in dialogue, is breathtaking, the work of a master, and if a lot of exposition is required to further this then so what? But Stoppard still cares about his characters: even the briefest of roles feels more thoughtfully sketched than those in ‘The Hard Problem’.
Jumping around in snapshots that often centre on humdrum domestic scenes, it largely avoids portentousness, and while it’s certainly pertinent to the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism, Stoppard has not crafted some clunky allegory to beat us over the head with. (It’s more on-the-nose about parallels to the Syrian refugee crisis).
Ultimately, ‘Leopoldstadt’ is a powerful and sincere tribute to a vanished people. Hopefully they can live on for a little longer thanks to the last great play of the last great writer of the twentieth century.