About Leopoldstadt

Thursday 29th December 2022

Aidan McArdle in Leopoldstadt, Photo: Marc Brenner
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A couple of days ago I watched Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt on the National Theatre’s high-quality streaming service. I missed the first staging of the play because of coronavirus, and although I did read the text, I have only now caught up with the play. Like many reviewers I am bowled over (to use a metaphor familiar to Leo, the piece’s most Stoppardian English character) by the epic and heartfelt quality of this story of Viennese Jews from 1899 to 1955. A large cast tells the compelling intergenerational story of the secular middle-class Merz family, who work in business, academia and health, and some of whom marry out. As a large assimilated family we see them celebrate Christmas alongside Passover. They are sexually liberal, and are familiar with Arthur Schnitzler as well as Sigmund Freud. But the cruel shadows of anti-Semitism intrude more and more, until the moving final scene when a list of family members includes a majority who were victims of the Holocaust. Not only is there something deeply autobiographical about this exploration of Jewish identity, in its dangerous illusions as well as its pride in progress, but it also speaks to the contemporary concern with identity and heritage. Stoppard gives us flashes of his wit and verbal brio, but, in keeping with the sombre theme of the story, he is also restrained. Which is not to say that the writing lacks passion — it doesn’t. The text explores the subject of maths as well as Jewish identity, and has enormous power and resonance. This 2022 staging is directed once again by Patrick Marber at Wyndham’s Theatre, but with a slightly new cast led by Aidan McArdle as Hermann, Sebastian Armesto as Ludwig as well as Jacob and Nathan, Mark Edel-Hunt as Fritz, Arty Froushan as Leo and Faye Castelow as Gretl. The balance between humour and darkness is beautifully delicate and the filming by Tim van Someren is excellent throughout. Designer Richard Hudson’s colour palette of browns and ochres enhances the historical sweep of the action, bringing an elegiac depth to this family saga. Very engrossing, very satisfying, very moving.

© Aleks Sierz

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