It’s taken me days to figure out how to write about Leopoldstadt. The play has emerged into the world fully packaged: it is Tom Stoppard’s likely final work, his valedictory grappling with the identity he only discovered late in life, as a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust. It is personal and epic; it is triumphant and elegiac; it is massive and yet streamlined. I found it immensely compelling and ultimately moving, and yet writing about it feels like facing down a seamless edifice. There aren’t any cracks, no way into a play that’s marketing and story alike take such care to shepherd how we read it.
Curtain rising on a cast of zillions and a glossy, hyper-detailed set, Leopoldstadt presents itself as a classic Serious West End Drama. I thought immediately of The Ferryman, of the simple pleasure of the sight of theatrical excess: a seemingly real Christmas tree, detailed props and set dressing, almost no doubling across over thirty characters including half a dozen children. All they need is a goose. This is how we know it’s serious history, because it’s rich and real, because it spans decades, following an extended Viennese family from the turn of the twentieth century to the aftermath of World War Two. The gaps between the years are filled by projections of historical portraits, photographs, and ephemera, scraps of times and places now gone to bookend scenes that are themselves snatches of a lost people, a lost world.
It’s hard, in moments, to resist the knowing groan of dramatic irony as Stoppard’s intellectual Merz-Jakobovicz clan seriously discuss the pressing political and social issues of their day: the value of assimilation, or not. Anti-Semitism, omnipresent. This chap called Hitler, this settlement with Germany, this ideal called Israel. Patriarch Hermann, a movingly self-serious Adrian Scarborough, has converted to Christianity and married a Catholic; his siblings and in-laws, secular and practical, still feel there is something in their heritage they cannot and do not want to escape.
What becomes so bracingly personal about a play that seems content, in many ways, to float in distancing intellectualism, is watching the characters work through their relationships to their identities. They don’t have to be Jewish, as Hermann argues and in some ways successfully demonstrates; they can never not be. Of course we see Stoppard here, not just because we’ve been told to. His story and this play are perfect examples of why it is so difficult to fit Jewishness into the familiar patterns of contemporary discourse about identity: can you be Jewish if you weren’t raised that way? If you didn’t even know until you were twenty-five, or fifty-five? Is it in your language, or your traditions, or your blood? Or in what happens to you, and has happened to people like you?
“You live as without history,” says one character to another—to the character that has been widely and probably accurately taken as the play’s analogue for Stoppard—late in the play. “As if you throw no shadow behind you.”
“Oh, no,” I remember my dad saying once about some World War II-set film that was coming out, I don’t remember which or when. “We don’t do Holocaust stories.” We already know all that, I always understood the implication to be. We don’t have to hear it again. We can’t bear to hear it again.
To be Jewish, maybe, is to throw a shadow. To have and know a history—this history.
As the play goes on, the stage empties. Richard Hudson’s set changes shape through the years, trading busy Victorian opulence for designs that grow twentieth-century sleek, and then crowded, batted, looted. The cavernous wings of Wyndham’s loom above the final scene, heavy and dark. It feels inescapably and essentially theatrical, this unreal emptiness, the physical transformation of the actual space before us.
You know how it will end. But even if feels over and done with, if it feels too late, if it feels like there’s nothing more to say, Stoppard insists that you must learn the story.
Leopoldstadt is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until 13th June. More info and tickets here.