The Leopldstadt Company, photo credit Marc Brenner

Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard at Wyndham’s Theatre | Review

l-r Aaron Neil (Ernst) & Rhys Bailey (Young Nathan), photo credit Marc Brenner.
l-r Aaron Neil (Ernst) & Rhys Bailey (Young Nathan), photo credit Marc Brenner.

The long timeline in Leopoldstadt allows for a comprehensive narrative, spanning from 1899 to 1955 in Vienna, Austria. A cast of forty-one, including fifteen children – this is an ambitious production. Come the interval, by which point the story has reached 1924, it is obvious to pretty much all and sundry that the good times for the Jewish community in Vienna (and elsewhere) is only going to get considerably worse. The response from some of the older characters is stoical: they are Jews, after all, and have suffered since the days of the Torah itself. What’s new?

Indeed, “What’s new?” is the question that played on my mind as events played out, particularly when Herr Doctor (Mark Edel-Hunt) storms in with two policemen (Joe Coen and Jake Neads) – the said policemen sporting that ghastly Nazi symbol on their uniforms. Here we go. It’s business as usual for the Third Reich, even if the raised arms and ‘Heil Hitler’ declarations are missing, either to spare the audience and/or to recognise the illegal status of Nazi salutes in both Germany and Austria today, or otherwise not to detract from the matter at hand – the eviction of this Jewish family from their home – imminently.

But even in 1899, this particular Jewish family wasn’t entirely Jewish – the play opens to a large Christmas tree being decorated, with Pauli (Ilan Galkoff), one of the excited children, proudly placing a Star of David on top. “Papists”, is what Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber) insists on calling the Christians amongst them. Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough), who ages well as the play progresses thanks to different wigs and beards, is only an observant Jew, for instance, and in 1924, a circumcision may or may not be about to take place for an infant who has apparently already been christened. Much confusion and hilarity ensues when Otto (Noof McEwan), a banker, visits Hermann but is mistaken for Mohel (Jake Neads), the latter being the person to carry out the said ceremony. Otto causes alarm when he asks, “Do you have a cigar cutter? Or I could bite it [the end of the cigar] off.” Comic relief indeed.

If this admittedly unwieldy play seems to cover familiar territory, perhaps that is its point: the Holocaust is something that needs to be remembered. A good number of members of the audience around me at the performance I attended were seemingly old enough to recall the Second World War, and although they (and the rest of us) could see the devastating ending coming from more than a mile off, when Leo (an excellent Luke Thallon) is presented by Rosa (Jenna Augen) with a family tree, the fate of so many is reduced to one word: Auschwitz.

A running gag about everyone being related to everyone else in one way or another is overdone, and one finds oneself eyeballing the cast list in the programme for longer than should be necessary to work out precisely who is whom. Par for the course, I suppose, for a Tom Stoppard play: it’s not the first one to be rather complicated. An intriguing beast of a show – the production team has done as much as could be done with it. Did I enjoy it? Well, no. But I very much doubt ‘enjoy’ is an appropriate verb for something as hard-hitting as this. Lest we forget.

4 Stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a manufacturer and baptised Jew married to Catholic Gretl, has moved up in the world. Gathered in the Merz apartment in a fashionable part of the city, Hermann’s extended family are at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s epic yet intimate drama. By the time we have taken leave of them, Austria has passed through the convulsions of war, revolution, impoverishment, annexation by Nazi Germany and – for Austrian Jews – the Holocaust in which 65,000 of them were murdered. It is for the survivors to pass on a story which hasn’t ended yet.

The cast includes Sebastian Armesto, Jenna Augen, Rhys Bailey, Joe Coen, Mark Edel-Hunt, Clara Francis, Ilan Galkoff, Caroline Gruber, Sam Hoare, Natalie Law, Noof McEwan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jake Neads, Aaron Neil, Alexander Newland, Yasmin Paige, Adrian Scarborough, Griffin Stevens, Ed Stoppard, Luke Thallon, Eleanor Wyld and Alexis Zegerman. The children’s cast, comprising three sets of five children, includes Toby Cohen, Zachary Cohen, Olivia Festinger, Tamar Laniado, Maya Larholm, Daniel Lawson, Louis Levy, Libby Lewis, Jack Meredith, Chloe Raphael, Beatrice Rapstone and Montague Rapstone.

Leopoldstadt
Wyndham’s Theatre
32-36 Charing Cross Road London WC2H 0DA

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