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Theatre Review Annihilated by history

SIMON PARSONS recommends a resonant meditation on a family devastated by the consequences of 20th-century anti-semitism

Leopoldstadt
Wyndham’s Theatre

IN HIS eighth decade, Tom Stoppard has written not only what he believes might be his last stage play but one whose intense emotional impact has highly personal resonances.

Set in Vienna over 55 years, Leopoldstadt is epic in scale, scope and sentiment. It opens in a prosperous fin-de-siecle Viennese drawing room, where an extended Jewish-Catholic family is celebrating Christmas.

In a glittering world of mercantile, cultural and academic involvement and success, the shadows of Russian pogroms and the rise of anti-semitic incidents are just dark shadows below the surface as Theodor Herzl’s contentious writings on establishing a Jewish state in Palestine come under scrutiny.

What follows traces four generations of family affairs as global events unfold. The first world war is seen in retrospect and the monstrous rise of European fascism exposed prior to the outbreak of the WWII.

Blending humour, history and pathos, Stoppard maintains the sense of family strength and identity throughout, ending with a heartrending scene that has close parallels to his own late realisation of his tragic Jewish heritage.

Patrick Marber’s direction stresses the importance of this legacy, with projected period photographs interlinking time periods and photo albums connecting the generations, with the production framed by a vibrant opening tableau and a contrastingly muted family backdrop at the conclusion.

At the heart of the drama is Adrian Scarborough’s engrossing performance as successful businessman Herman Merz.

His quintessentially Jewish energy, business acumen, pragmatism and humour and his devoted relationship to his non-Jewish wife Gretl (Faye Castelow) in the face of personal and national threats provide much of the play’s substance.

The children, present in most of the large family scenes inject energy, movement and a sense of continuity are notably absent in the last scene from 1955.

The power and visceral impact of this production and its contemporary resonance is undeniable but its ambition is also its limitation.

To pack into 140 minutes the lives of a large Jewish family from the apogee of Viennese success and integration and then watch its progress and near annihilation over four generations deserves more time.

There’s a sense that the material here would have even greater impact as an extended TV series.

Runs until June 13, box office: wyndhamstheatre.co.uk.

 

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