A new play by Tom Stoppard is a theatrical event, and when he hints that it may be his last, even more so. With Leopoldstadt, Sir Tom looks at his own Jewish heritage and history. It feels personal. It also feels remarkably unremarkable for a playwright best known for his complex and witty plays.
This is the story of a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria from 1900-1955. The urbane Merz family begins the play facing a degree of assimilation as they integrate Christmas into their traditions. By the end, two World Wars, an attempted genocide and the fragmentation of their family and faith has occured.
I come to Stoppard plays with expectations of skillful wordplay and cutting insights. Plays like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Thing, Arcadia and Travesties play with form and language (often ostentatiously so). Why does Leopoldstadt feel so… normal?
What does it mean to be Jewish? For the Merz family the definition keeps changing on them. From being a secular Austrian-Jewish family, they have Jewishness thrust upon them by political forces. How much Jewish blood do you need to be considered a Jew? That depends on who is asking – Nazi soldiers, or your own relations. The play closes with cousins meeting again after the wars, some stayed in Austria, while one (played beautifully by The Inheritance alumnus Luke Thallon) was taken to England and raised as an Englishman. He has no memory of early childhood in Vienna, surrounded by his Austrian family – is he any less Jewish, any less connected to this thread of history?
The sprawling cast (40 plus performers) and multigenerational nature of the story removes any central touch point for the audience. Children grow to be adults and eventually the grandkids take over the story. The characters don’t have time to be developed beyond the basic facts. Ultimately, the audience is kept at arm’s length, watching as the Merz family loses its agency in the world. As characters I liked fade out of the story, I found my interest fading as well.
Leopoldstadt feels like a combination of familiar elements without any spark of the new. The strongest story thread is the fate of a portrait – much like the film The Woman In Gold. The play’s one and only real joke comes straight out of Reality Bites. Yes, the 90s Winona Ryder/Ethan Hawke slacker film REALITY BITES!
Without the linguistic bells and whistles or the intense dissection of arguments that has become Stoppard’s trademark, Leopoldstadt is less head and more heart. I hope this isn’t his last play as I would love to see what would happen when the two truly combine.
By Chad Armstrong