Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt Is A Moving Exploration Of Memory And Family
Tom Stoppard’s new drama, Leopoldstadt, is a deep dive into the heart of a family album: this album is one with more than the usual family drama, though, as we follow the lives of the Jacobowitz and Merz family over three generations, delving into their history while witnessing Jewish celebrations, the first world war, harsh antisemitism and, finally, the Holocaust.
Beginning in the imperial grandeur of Vienna, Leopoldstadt takes us on a two-hour journey from pre-first world war to the post-war misery of the 1950s. Rumoured to be his last play, Leopoldstadt is inspired by Stoppard’s own family tree and the recent revelations of his Jewish origin. Along with dates projected onto the stage, signalling where we are in history, original photographs of Stoppard’s family are displayed, as well as a hand-drawn family tree.
The family tree is definitely necessary — the two families are so large, that even the characters themselves forget how they are related to one another. Out of this 40 strong cast, however, only a handful of the characters are properly developed and focused on. Hermann (Adrian Scarborough) and his ‘Christian’ wife Gretl (Faye Castelow) particularly stand out: their gradual decline throughout the two-hour play is a sad, but necessary, thing to watch.
The drama almost entirely plays out within the four walls of the grand Viennese living room, but sounds of smashing glass, fighting, and bombs from outside suggest that things are getting dangerous. Even amid the increasingly tense developments outside of the house, there are moments of comedy. These, however, get fewer and further between following the 1938 Anschluss: the whole family have to move into a single room, and the extent of what their Jewish identity means for their fate comes to light. Historically, Leopoldstadt is spot on. Facts and figures are peppered into the play, so by the end, the audience has not only received a lesson in Jewish traditions (such as the significance of food items at the Passover feast) but also learnt the finer details of the Austrian experience of the second world war.
The large cast is a visual reminder of the sheer number of Jews that were the victims of the Holocaust: in the final scene, in 1955, there are only three family members left. One of the survivors, Rosa (Jenna Augen), reels off the locations of the others’ deaths: Auschwitz, Dachau, Auschwitz, Auschwitz…
A fantastically executed, moving play about identity, family and memory, Leopoldstadt reminds us why there are some things that should simply never be forgotten.
Leopoldstadt, Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0DA. Tickets from £15, until 13 June 2020.
Last Updated 17 February 2020