Review: ‘Leopoldstadt’ – Tales of a Vienna Family – at Wyndham’s Theatre

The cast of "Leopoldstadt"

By Jonathan Spira on 11 March 2020
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If a measure of success of a play is that it can make the theatergoer want to flee the theater in abject terror thanks to the emotions it stirs up, then Tom Stoppard’s new play, “Leopoldstadt,” which just opened at Wyndham’s Theatre, is an unbridled success.  It’s also quite good by more ordinary measures.

The play is a sweeping portrait of a Viennese Jewish family – one not terribly dissimilar from mine –  in the city from 1899 through the Anschluß and on through 1955, the year Austria was reestablished as a sovereign state.  While the play doesn’t depict Stoppard’s family (his was Czech) and doesn’t exactly portray mine (the Merz-Jakubovicz family in the play is far more religious than mine ever was), it does provide a fairly accurate window into what life was like before and after the Great War, into the 1920s, and into the tumultuous 1930s.

The Merz family, like mine, is comprised of businessmen, bankers, university professors, and doctors who are already wholly assimilated into Viennese life and society when we first meet them ca. 1899.

With 41 players, the cast is so large that some characters disappear into the woodwork, although I found the roles of Hermann (Adrian Scarborough) and his wife Gretl (Faye Castelow) particularly thought provoking.

As we progress through the decades, it becomes clear how institutionalized anti-Semitism impacts the family, starting with career advancement (Jews advanced slowly to the rank of professor, my great grandfather was appointed principal of a Gymnasium without receiving the customary title).

On the sentiment of returning to Austria after the war (my family partially returned, I spent summers in Austria as a child): “Who the hell are they to tell me I’m not wanted,” says Nathan, who returned to Vienna in 1949, the year the Carol Reed film noir “The Third Man” – focused on post-war Vienna – came out. “We were 10% of the Viennese and 50% of the university graduates, of lawyers, doctors, writers, philosophers, artists, architect, composers…”

Hanna(Dorothea Meyer-Bennett) muses on the Austrian national anthem, composed by Haydn in 1797 as an anthem for the birthday of Kaiser Franz II: “Oh damn them. Damn them! They’ve stolen our Imperial anthem for their bar-room sing-along,” almost the exact words my grandmother expressed to me multiple times.

Finally, my father was present as a very young boy when (to use Nathan’s words) “ecstatic multitudes” welcomed Hitler in 1938 and described the scene in a similar fashion.

Just as we see in the Merz family, many Viennese intermarried.  My grandfather was saved at one point after the Anschluß by leaving the city center and taking refuge at the house of a cousin who had married a non-Jew.  The sight of that couple’s blond son, playing in the yard in his Hitler Youth uniform, was enough to keep unwelcome enquiries at bay.

While Richard Hudon’s brilliant set is somewhat different than my family’s apartment (and we did not have a large Klimt on the wall), Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s lovely costumes align with family photos I have from the period.

My only criticisms are those likely to go unnoticed by the vast majority of theatergoers who are not Austrian:  the mispronunciation of a popular shopping street in Vienna, the Kärtner Straße, and of the chestnut tree-lined Hauptallee in the Prater (hint to the performer, the last syllable is not pronounced like the name “Lee”), an avenue that dates back to 1538 and which was so beautiful in many films over the years.

It was not planned but I found myself in the Leopoldstadt district, walking along the Haupatallee, the very next day after seeing the show.

Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” is a somber, moving, and well-researched look at Jewish Fin de Siècle Vienna and the horrors that followed.  If one is momentarily jarred by the jump at the end to 1955, the year Austria regained its independence, it gives us an opportunity to learn the tragic fate of each character’s demise. Rosa (Jenna Augen) has helpfully made up a family tree and recites it to Leo (né Leopold and portrayed by Luke Thallon) and recites the fate of each family member. The list – “Auschwitz.” “Dachau.” “Death march [to nowhere].” “Steinhof.” “Suicide.” – just like the play, is haunting.

THE DETAILS

Leopoldstadt
Through June 13, 2020
Wyndham’s Theatre
Charing Cross Road
Covent Garden, London WC2H 0DA
Running time: 2 hours and 35 min.
www.leopoldstadtplay.com/

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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