The NT Live transmission, in conjunction with Sonia Friedman Productions, from Wyndham’s Theatre of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, was somewhat timely coming as it did on International Holocaust Memorial Day, and more so when its depiction of the travails of a Jewish family resonates so strongly with the unveiling of portraits of the last survivors of the Holocaust.
Centred around the extended Merz family in Vienna, we travel through four generations from the turn of the twentieth century to the creation of an independent Austrian republic in 1955, where amidst the all too familiar humdrum domestic scenes we explore what it means to learn and love; to live and die; to discover what identity really means within a family, society, race, and religion, and the extent to which any of us can ever truly belong.
Richard Hudson provides the simplest of sets that transforms with ease from embodying the richness of empire through to the hope of a brave new world; from the deprivation of repression to the re-discovery of one’s bare self, and in so doing its uncluttered platform elicits some mesmerising performances from a talented cast, some playing multiple roles across the piece, in which each character cleaves to a different rope upon which to haul themselves up, ever convinced of the logic or righteousness of their approach, and yet all are condemned to fail no matter what, and none more so than those who appear to survive yet are left alone with only their memories, real and false, or even worse, no memories at all.
Directed by Patrick Marber, this is a serious and dark play in which Stoppard clearly reflects on his own background, much of which he was only to discover very late in life, and whilst he has located the action in Vienna, often considered the Jewish capital of Europe, the truths of his very personal history echo throughout. There is a lot to get across and on occasion the writing strays into telling rather than showing but in the context of over half a century of turmoil let alone all that shaped and preceded it, I can forgive him that; having been in Vienna myself only a few weeks ago, I delighted in his clever and intricate weaving of historical fact through the various strands of this story: this might be a fictional representation but the lives it portrays are – were – all too real. In sharp contrast to earlier moments of fun and good humour, the chill that freezes them at the ringing of their doorbell, the noise of a baying crowd outside, and the shatter of breaking glass sound out a 9-11 that took place in 1938, the horror of which we can only imagine as we listen to the cold roll call of the family tree at its conclusion, its circle of life well and truly broken.
There is a wider tale and warning in this story of ghetto and pogrom that has become so familiar to its characters that they merely shrug their shoulders in resignation when it comes round yet again. When, this time, it takes an even darker turn from which there is little opportunity of escape, we would be wise to sit up and take notice to avoid repeating the mistakes of this past – sadly, as I look at the world around me, I see little evidence that we have learned anything at all. With hope, this play may just prove to be the turning point for the generations that follow.
Further details of Wyndham’s Theatre at https://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk/
Further details of NT Live transmissions at https://www.ntlive.com/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 27th January 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★