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Feb 13th, 2020
Weaving together five decades in the history of a Jewish family in Vienna, Tom Stoppard's latest and most personal work takes us on a heartbreaking journey.
From 1900, where the family is part of the bourgeois, protected in part by the Emperor giving the Jewish people in his country full civil rights a generation before, to 1955, following their murder at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Beginning at the start of the new century, there is a sense of hope, freedom, and acceptance for this middle-class family. As part of the audience, with the benefit of hindsight, it's wrenching to watch, especially when Hermann Merz, (the most upwardly mobile member who has converted to Catholicism and is a prosperous factory owner), espouses his family's rise over three generations - "My grandfather wore a caftan. My father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner." - assuring his family that the future is bright. But even in this liberated time, it takes no more than an offhand comment from a non-Jewish officer to make him realise that it's all an onion skin, antisemitism is not just prevalent, it is institutionalized, and in some cases, law.
As the next generation grows up under the encroaching threat of fascism, we see horizons shrink, at first slowly then exponentially. The rise of fascism and the thin illusion of freedom pepper the play, mindful completely of the modern climate as the cries of "this won't happen again" become an empty wish, existing in a liminal space between one atrocity and the next.
The mastery of Leopoldstadt is that the lives of the multitudinous central family appeal at first, to everyone. The humanity of celebration, love, infidelity, place, and life, in general, are warming and universal. From the genial Ludwig's love of mathematics to the youngest children galloping about, it could be anyone's family, anywhere in the world. But this is Stoppard's family, and by a stroke of fate, he was one of the lucky ones. This vivid world is soon to be shattered and as the matriarch bemoans, in the comfortable sitting room of 1900, how time has made strangers of the subjects in the family photo album. The sentiment turns from light to dark as, by 1955, even the merest hint of a memory of someone is precious.
Stoppard has effectively brought to life his own family tree, dramatised the same scandals that we all recognise, but once 1938 rolls around the relatability stops. The latter half leaves you with your heart in your mouth as the family is faced with the full force of the Nazi occupation. Hermann's earlier innocence is mirrored by his sister in law who dismisses the idea of factories being taken and borders locked - "we Jews have been through worse" - but this time, it's evil they face. Within minutes, she is proven wrong.
By the third part, we're given a loosely fictionalised version of Stoppard in Leo, who, raised in Britain after his mother escaped with her partner, is at first unable to see himself in the disparate family members he encounters on a trip to the city, but by the last is completely devastated when the fates of his long lost family are revealed. It makes for a powerful end to what is not just a powerful, but essential, play for both playwright and audience.
If at 81, this represents Stoppard's last play, it would seem that he has saved the best for last and could perhaps have only written about his family's story after such a long life and career,
But this is not your normal Stoppard, it's his most accessible, masterful, and deeply moving. A rare piece of theatre and one I suspect will stick with you for many years to come.
View our show pages for more information about Leopoldstadt, Princess of Wales Theatre.
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