Saturday, 29 February 2020

Leopoldstadt - Tom Stoppard

New plays by Tom Stoppard don't come along very often, so of course when one did, it was inevitable that I would book tickets. My friend A and went on what turned out to be press day 

I have very mixed feelings about the play. I really wanted to like it, and given Stoppard's track record, I had high expectations, but I ended up feeling that there was a much better lay somewhere inside, struggling to get out.

The premise is that it follows a single family, living in Vienna, from 1899 to 1955. The family are (mostly) Jewish - Hermann Metz (Adrian Scarborough) , head of the family, has converted and been baptised as a catholic, and married a catholic woman and considers himself to be assimilated into Austrian society. He has ambitions to join the jockey club, is an optimist about the ways in which the Austrian Empire has progressed, allowing Jewish people to leave the ghettos and become accepted in society.

His brother-in-law, Ludwig Jakobovicz, is a mathematician at the University, and is less optimistic,  more resigned to the realities of anti-semitism and a slower rate of change, and primarily focused on his research.

The play moves forward in time, with scenes in 1900, 1924, 1938 (Kristallnacht) and 1955, there is a cast of over 40 people, although the numbers fall over the course of the play, with the final scene having just 3 characters remaining on stage. Almost everything takes place in a single room, which changes from turn-of-the-century richness to the grim, battered state of the room in 1955,. It's an excellent visual reflection of the changing fortunes of the family.

Given that the play follows the fortunes of a Austrian-Jewish family through the first half of the 20th Century it was inevitably going to end tragically, and this is constantly foreshadowed throughout the play, to the extent that is feels very heavy handed.

And that is my key issue with the play - it has an awful lot of  very obvious, repetitive exposition, with characters laboriously explaining things to each other,including things about their own shared personal and family history.

There are parts where the exposition and foreshadowing are done much more subtly, and work far better - for instance, in relation to WW2.

The final scenes were very well done  - the remnants of the family have returned to try to recover their looted art (A Klimt portrait of Hermann's wife, Gretl) and home . The survivors include the character presumably based on Stoppard himself, a young man whose mother was widowed before the war, and remarried an English journalist, who was able to take her and her son to England, in 1938, and to bring her son up as a Englishman, forgetful of his Austrian and Jewish roots, who becomes someone to whom the others can explain what happened.

The play ends listing the names of the characters we last saw in 1938, and their fates.. Auschwitz, Dachau, Suicide....

I think this could have been a very good mini-series, with more time and space to allow us to get to know the multiple characters and perhaps to show more, and cut down on the lectures-to-the-audience , alternatively I think it could be a very good play, if it were perhaps to be edited a little, with a view to trusting the audience a little more. 

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