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Tom Stoppard only found out he was wholly Jewish about 30 years ago. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czech Republic, his parents, brother and he were aided in their last-minute escape from Europe in September 1938 by the Bata shoe company, who employed his doctor father. They fled to Singapore (where his father was subsequently killed) and then to Australia and India where his mother met and married Ken Stoppard, who brought them back to England and gave Tom a name and a country.
Stoppard has described how on a trip back to Zlin, tracing family roots (the rest of the family had been wiped out in the Holocaust), he met a cousin who showed him a scar on her wrist from a bad cut which his father had stitched. “In that moment” he said, “I am surprised by grief, a small catching-up of all the grief I owe”. He didn’t know or had nothing of his father’s and this moment of connection floored him.
A similar moment is poignantly recreated at a crucial stage in Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s epic new play which is his own personal reckoning with his Jewish identity, something he had not dwelt on before in his work. In blind fear of the Nazis who have stormed in to interrogate his family, a little boy cuts himself by unwittingly crushing a cup in his hand. Decades later the scar helps him bond with a lost cousin who witnessed it. That character has become an English gentleman reuniting with what’s left of his extended family in Vienna, but the reawakening of that buried moment devastates him.
This fictional Merz family represented here are urbane and secular and Stoppard uses their intergenerational story from 1899 to 1955 in the Leopoldstadt neighbourhood of Vienna, to explore issues of Jewish identity and culture which are as relevant today as they were then.
These were the kind of family, made up of businessmen, professors and doctors, who thrived in fin de siècle Vienna, which was then the cultural capital of the world. Hermann (the brilliant Adrian Scarborough) like many of his kind has “married out” and so both Christmas and Passover are celebrated. When we first meet them, the family are blooming, the torch bearers of assimilation, however the onset of the Holocaust renders them more Jewish and nearly destroys them all.
Rarely has a large cast been so necessary for a play than in this one. Every family member must be represented and given their due precisely because so many were erased, and this is driven home by a clever motif throughout of seeing the extended family pose for group portraits.
Richard Hudson’s stately drawing rooms, the focal point for this bustling family, are rendered in beautiful detail enhanced by Neil Austin’s painterly lighting. Combined they manage to blend period realism and dreamlike nostalgia in equal measure.
Patrick Marber’s direction has a curiously antique air too, with blocking reminiscent of old-fashioned productions of Shaw – lots of static declaiming from down stage centre. As Stoppard tries to tackle the politics and culture of early 20th century Vienna in ideological debates (as only he would) the play can, at times, get smothered in exposition. Marber compensates for this by having the well drilled ensemble cast of twenty zip in and out. The characters fail to connect fully, though, as they’re so lightly sketched.
The piece finally achieves emotional heft in Act 2 as we reach 1938 and must witness the humiliations and horrors of Kristallnacht. Here, Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design comes into its own. It’s all you need. The Merz’s business and home are confiscated and they soon find themselves evicted and transported. It’s like a speeded-up horror show and it is no mean feat to engage dramatically with this content without being exploitative. Stoppard and Marber do it with great sensitivity and finesse and the result is emotionally overpowering.
It’s the least Stoppard-like Stoppard you’ll see but it’s something different, a profoundly personal story and perhaps a valedictory, with a message that all too easily is getting forgotten.