Leopoldstadt at Wyndham’s Theatre: A grand, emotional epic that is inescapably cinematic
” And I suppose if I live to Mr Stoppard’s age of 82, perhaps I too will realise that the world and culture have become too obsessed with their own self-important intelligence and too disdainful of that most important of things – namely, love or empathy or whatever you want to call it. “
Fifteen minutes into Leopoldstadt, the man next to me is already snoring into my lap. His wife remarks, some two hours and thirty minutes later, that it’s “not the worst” play she’s seen. Clearly, the momentous return of Tom Stoppard, Great Britain’s (and Northern Ireland, maybe) Greatest Living Playwright™, has not been so momentous for some.
This production feels like, and most probably is, a final statement; a legacy play that finds no room for post-modern fuckery or new ideas or reinvention. To live is, after all, to float along on this cosmic stream of feeling and experience, and postmodernism rarely comes into it if at all. So Leopoldstadt is the grand, emotional epic – the story of a life, several lives and the time and the place in which they lived. It is remarkably cinematic, more than a tad melodramatic, all heart and all soul. Nothing more, perhaps, but then again what more can you ask for?
Our story follows the Jewish Merz and Jakobovicz families in Austria, from 1899 until 1955. The cast is huge – by my count, some 38 performers will grace the stage for each show (that’s ignoring the rotating roster of children and the textbook of understudies). The date is evocatively revealed by a silkscreen that descends from time to time to project images from the surrounding political landscape; it is a device that, when combined with a loud, immersive sound system, feels almost inescapably cinematic. Perhaps Mr. Stoppard’s multi-decade foray into big-screen entertainment has left its mark.
The set is both grandiose and simple – a large dining room and living area of a luxurious Austrian flat. Its ceiling lies somewhere between ornate European cornicing and an opulent golden frame for an undisclosed picture; frames and images are everywhere in this play. Over the five acts of Leopoldstadt (1899, 1900, 1924, 1938 and 1955), this set will effectively break down and become increasingly more barren as its occupants are thrust from high society. Visually, the work is almost faultless.
The inner workings of the play are too onerous to describe in a review, at least partially due to the fact that there are around 20 or 30 discrete characters involved. It suffices to say that over the course of two and a half hours, we chart the family dynamics and politics of these two families as they are forced to reckon with a society fundamentally stacked against them.
Stoppard’s cat’s cradle, which adorns the promotional materials for the show, raises interesting questions about approaches to history. Its knots change places over time, forming a timeline of discreet, fixed events like the ones we’re exposed to in Leopoldstadt. This is what we might call history, but it’s not really what we should be calling the truth – something which is far more fluid. Like László Nemes’ Sunset, Leopolstadt aims at trying to give a sense of momentum or underlying reason to the types of events that we struggle to fathom around a hundred years later – partially, it has to be said, due to the faulty methods of historians. In this respect, the play certainly does a good job – even if one or two of its historical monologues feel a tad too exposition-y.
There are, however, the strangest slips – things which feel almost amateur. Our characters will be having a perfectly normal, interesting conversation, and then one of them will just break out into a jarring monologue on, say, ‘memory and the dead’ that feels totally out of place. People do not talk like this – in platitudes and philosophical prose and Murakami discourse, and the spell is broken. Likewise, the constant invocation of Freud serves no purpose other than to flag up that repressed memory will become relevant later in the show. In other words, I feel like anything that wasn’t open and human and genuine, anything pushing into the realm of the post-modern or thematic, felt a bit like an impostor.
Stoppard, for the most part, stays admirably well clear of the sensationalist dramatic opportunity of World War Two. Adorno famously stated “no poetry after Auschwitz”, but it increasingly seems that if anything that whole nightmare has spawned too much poetry. Something like Schindler’s List, for instance, layers on the poetry so hard that it almost entirely devalues the horror it’s trying to depict. And I must admit that one particular scene in the play, which sees Joe Coen’s Nazi policeman psychologically torment the family on Kristallnacht, plays a little too much like a pantomime – the Nazi officer less a tangible threat and more a sort of uber-sadistic bond villain from Inglorious Basterds. But this is just one scene, and the refusal to, say, plaster the projection screen distastefully with the emaciated corpses of Jewish victims is admirable.
Overall, though, the fact remains that Leopoldstadt cannot be some sort of searing, momentous work, because it is not that sort of play. Unless I missed it, it contains no central message or thesis or collection of ideas – other than that magnificent cat’s cradle. Rather, it is a grand final epic from a creative life lived well. I suppose if I was David Foster Wallace, I might claim that this sort of emotional earnestness is truly post-modern in a post-irony world. And I suppose if I live to Mr Stoppard’s age of 82, perhaps I too will realise that the world and culture have become too obsessed with their own self-important intelligence and too disdainful of that most important of things – namely, love or empathy or whatever you want to call it. But I am not David Foster Wallace and I lack the wisdom of our Greatest Living Playwright™, and so I struggle to take such melodrama at face value and to assign the title of masterpiece to something that doesn’t provoke me or make me think. If this is my fault, so be it.
Still, as these spectres of the past stand backlit on the stage demarcated by their fates – suicide, Dachau, death on transport, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz – it’s hard to look into their eyes without bursting into tears on the spot. Whether that’s Stoppard or Adorno at work, I don’t know, but I’ve talked for too long now and need to wind up this review before it becomes horrendously unwieldy.
Leopoldstadt will be on at Wyndham’s Theatre from the 25 January – 13 June 2020. A captioned performance will be held on Tuesday, 17 March 2020. An audio-described performance will be held on Tuesday, 24 March 2020.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner