Leopoldstadt review – Stoppard’s family portrait is an elegiac epic

Leopoldstadt review – Stoppard’s family portrait is an elegiac epic

Wyndham’s theatre, London
Patrick Marber directs Tom Stoppard’s sweeping story of a Jewish family in Vienna across six decades


3 /
5 stars

3 out of 5 stars.

From left, Ed Stoppard, Alexis Zegerman, Faye Castelow and Adrian Scarborough.




Feels alive and urgent … from left, Ed Stoppard, Alexis Zegerman, Faye Castelow and Adrian Scarborough.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

In 2003, Tom Stoppard was asked if he would ever write a “Jewish play”. “Absolutely,” he answered, though he was more ambivalent about basing it on his personal story. Only a decade earlier, he had found out he was fully Jewish and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps.

Here is his Jewish play – not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play and perhaps his last. As such, there is something momentous about Leopoldstadt, which has the weight and majesty of a final drama. It is grand, contemplative and elegiac with a cast of more than 20 and a historical sweep across six decades.

Stoppard explores Jewish identity through the intergenerational story of the urbane and secular Merz family. They are made up of businessmen, lecturers and doctors who marry out, celebrate Christmas alongside Passover and appear wholly assimilated in the Viennese society of 1899, when we first meet them.

As the years rumble by, we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews; those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust and its inherited trauma, post-war.

Leopoldstadt at Wyndham’s theatre.


Grand but static … Leopoldstadt at Wyndham’s theatre. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Kenneth Tynan said of Stoppard: “You must never forget that [he] is an émigré.” Leopoldstadt casts those words in new light as it asks questions about identity that feel live and urgent: how are we defined – and confined – by racial or religious identities? Is full assimilation possible?

The Merz family are “made” Jewish by history and the Holocaust, and until they are stripped of their wealth and standing, some characters insist they can transcend outsider status. “We are Austrians now,” says Hermann, who runs the family business and has married a gentile. “Austrians of Jewish descent.” The family’s various fates deliver lessons in history – one loses his life fighting for his country, others are sent to concentration camps.

What is initially striking about Leopoldstadt is its lack of hallmarks such as the linguistic play and pirandellian tricks that have laced Stoppard’s body of work. In the figure of Ludwig, a mathematician played by Ed Stoppard, we recognise the familiar theme of science that has long preoccupied the playwright’s characters. Ludwig cleaves to logic as a way out of the irrational chaos of Nazi ideology: “There is order underneath,” he tells the children about their tangled game of cat’s cradle and, as a metaphor of hope, it is filled with the sadness of hindsight.

Aaron Neil and Rhys Bailey in Leopoldstadt.


Aaron Neil and Rhys Bailey in Leopoldstadt. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Patrick Marber’s production has grand but static set pieces, made up of ideological debate between characters on assimilation, antisemitism, Theodor Herzl’s foundational Zionism and the creation of Israel. Stoppard keeps us at a considerable distance from his characters. The emotional drama builds up, but in the deep waters beneath the surface. However, the characters’ expositional history lessons are jarring, and at times puzzlingly simplistic and leaden.

The cast is so large that some characters feel scantily sketched although Hermann (Adrian Scarborough) is particularly well-drawn alongside his wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow). When there is drama rather than debate, it is arresting – such as a powerful house repossession scene and an infidelity that has long-term consequences. The off-stage action has a searing effect thanks to Adam Cork’s sound design, from the smashing of glass that signifies Kristallnacht to the screeching of fighter planes and stomping of boots.

The stately drawing room of Richard Hudson’s set is drenched in faded Chekhovian grandeur and gloom. A screen brings us dates to mark history and black-and-white pictures that always return to the image of a family portrait. When, finally, the past walks into the present, we are given brief descriptions of each character’s death – “Auschwitz”, “Dachau”, “death march” – the list goes on and on and is deeply tragic. For all its debate and distance, this particular family portrait leaves us bereft at history.

At Wyndham’s theatre, London, until 13 June.