“Leopoldstadt,” the most slow-burn and personal work of 82-year-old Tom Stoppard’s long stage and screen career, is an intimate epic. It springs to astonishing dramatic life in a now bare, but once glorious apartment off Vienna’s Ringstrasse in 1955. The only problem is, for all the visceral emotional intensity of that scene, it forms less than the last quarter of a play that begins, two hours earlier, at the same address in 1899.
The epic quality stems from the span: the play charts four generations of an Austrian Jewish family. The intimacy comes from the focus on the domestic, since we only ever see the characters in the grand sitting-room. But being indoors doesn’t mean that the world outside is forgotten. Far from it.
All of this is evident from the extended, elegant Christmas scene that opens Patrick Marber’s deft production, in which 16 members of the 31-strong cast are eating, laughing, squabbling, playing the piano and, above all, talking. Helped by servants moving in and out, this is the prosperous Merz family household at rest, headed by Hermann (Adrian Scarborough), a prosperous textile manufacturer who, baptized as a Jew, married Catholic Gretl (Faye Castelow).
Despite the religious divide, the atmosphere is harmonious, as amusingly symbolized by the moment where Hermann and Gretel’s young son places a star at the top of the traditional tree: a Star of David. As his shrugging grandmother (Caroline Gruber) exclaims, “Poor boy, baptized and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?”
In a recurring attempt, not always successful, to clarify how everyone fits into the family, Stoppard ensures everyone repeatedly uses one another’s names. And in typically Jewish, friendly family quarrels, questions about religious and cultural identity are vociferously argued back and forth. Hermann is pragmatic but largely optimistic; he has no need to hold on to his identity as a Jew, he argues, since they are living in a cosmopolitan city in which Jews had been freed half a century earlier to have the same rights as everyone else.
The family’s debates are as intellectually energized and wordy as you would expect from this most articulate of playwrights and, unsurprisingly, not everyone shares Hermann’s perspective. Different characters take their Judaism on board, from celebration to denial, to differing degrees. And then there are dilemmas about everyone’s sense of home. Is that Vienna, the promised land via Palestine under British mandate, or America?
Such debates were — and remain — crucial, but they also present dramatic problems.
Despite the entire cast working to add personal characteristics, the more we see the arguments moving into historical focus over time — the play jump-cuts to successive generations — the more almost all of the people on stage become dangerously expository mouthpieces for ideas rather than fully-fledged characters. That makes it hard to follow who’s who, and harder still to connect on an individual basis.
But then — with the notable exception of a succession of early, two-actor scenes covering Gretl’s affair and its unexpected repercussions — the play’s focus is generational, not individual. Stoppard is presenting and explicating a succession of dwindling family portraits as antisemitism outside rises inexorably to take a firmer grip. Vital though this survey of history is, it cannot be denied that the play is static. Any tension that builds is generated not by the (in)action onstage but between the discussions we hear and the knowledge that audiences bring to the play.
Jewish audiences with an understanding of the past will feel a sense of foreboding more than most when the date 1938 appears in a projection, the year of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes in Austria and Germany were smashed up. In a rare case of Stoppard meeting theatrical expectation, he creates a quiet, horribly chilling scene in which Nazis arrive and viciously and methodically evict the family.
From there, Stoppard moves to the final scene in which two family members who survived the war meet Leonard, the easeful, thoroughly Anglicized son of one of the children from the opening scene, whose mother survived the war having escaped to England. At last, the debates about Jewish identity have fiercely emotional resonance since we have witnessed, at least in part, the people being spoken of whose lives have been taken.
The scene is played with hair-trigger timing and moving intensity by Sebastian Armesto as angry Nathan, Jenna Augen as the American Rosa, and Luke Thallon’s Leonard, whose blithe demeanor cracks when suddenly overtaken by shared memory. As an essay in the program details, while the scene is not precisely autobiographical, it is rooted in the revelations that came to Stoppard who, in his late fifties, discovered not only his Jewish identity but the fates of members of his immediate family he’d never previously known about. The emotional authenticity shines through.
The power of that overwhelming scene is so strong that it not only brings the rest of the play into focus, it makes you think that perhaps, beneath this supremely sincere and well-informed, fading but still-urgent canvas, there was a tauter, more rigorous play fighting to get out.