Tom Stoppard – sorry, Sir Tom Stoppard, knight of the realm – is back. The legendary playwright behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia, now 82 years old, has a new play in the West End, five years on from his last outing.
Leopoldstadt – named after the traditionally Jewish district of Vienna – is an epic, spanning six decades in two and a half hours, with a cast of more than 20. It’s at Wyndham’s Theatre until June, in a staging from director, playwright and erstwhile satirical news reporter Patrick Marber, and is designed by Richard Hudson.
That 20 plus cast features Olivier award-winner Adrian Scarborough, alongside Faye Castelow, Caroline Gruber, Luke Thallon and – in a somewhat neat, somewhat nepotistic turn-up – Stoppard’s own progeny, Ed Stoppard, in a cameo role.
But does Stoppard still have his magic touch at the tail-end of a seven-decade career? Does Marber have the skills to stage such a significant show? Do the critics love or loathe Leopoldstadt?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
This, by the great man’s own admission, is probably Stoppard’s last play. It’s also, he says, his most personal – a sprawling drama set in Vienna, following the same Jewish family – the urbane, educated Merz/Jacobovicz clan – from 1899 to 1955, through all the terrors and traumas they suffered during that time.
It’s also unlike anything he has written before. “Whatever has been said of Stoppard’s work in the past, very little of it applies to Leopoldstadt,” insists Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “The play is personal, linked closely to his own family history. It is simple, following one family over five decades. And it is deeply, achingly moving.”
It lacks the “linguistic play and Pirandellian tricks” that have characterised his career, agrees Arifa Akbar (Guardian, ★★★★). Instead it’s “grand, contemplative and elegiac”, and “asks questions about identity that feel live and urgent”.
“It is as if the playwright felt that what he had to say here was too urgent to be filtered through his usual cerebral playfulness,” agrees Ben Brantley (New York Times). Nevertheless, it is still “epic and engrossing” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), “wise, witty and devastatingly sad” according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★) and “a powerful and sincere tribute to a vanished people” according to Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★). It is, says Lloyd Evans (Spectator), “Stoppard’s Schindler’s List”.
Not everyone agrees that Stoppard has gone out on a high. For John Nathan (Jewish Chronicle, ★★★★), Leopoldstadt is “not his greatest work”, for David Benedict (Variety) it feels as if it contains “a tauter more rigorous play fighting to get out”, and Clive Davis (Times, ★★) reckons that Stoppard “has not found a way of turning his research into genuinely engaging conversation”.
The nay-sayers are in the minority, though. Most critics agree with Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). The play isn’t perfect, but it is a powerful and plaintive swansong to Stoppard’s extraordinary career. “People have sometimes accused him of being too clever by half, lacking the power to move us beyond words,” Cavendish concludes. “Here is irrefutable evidence to the contrary.”
Patrick Marber has taken the reigns of a Stoppard play before. His 2016 Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Travesties transferred to the West End and Broadway, picking up five Olivier nominations, and four Tony nominations.
That show was stuffed full of trips and tricks, jokes and jests. Leopoldstadt is an entirely different affair. Marber “composes each scene like a family portrait”, describes Nathan, while Davis likens his production to “a serious of sepia tableaux”. It’s “grand but static” according to Akbar and “sumptuous but distancing” according to Bano.
“Marber, who guided us so supremely through the 2016 revival of Stoppard’s Travesties, doesn’t really let anything get in the way of the stream of words,” continues Bano. “In fact, long stretches of this play bear down with unremitting outmodedness: two people, opposing views, long speeches. Creaks and stiffness slow the play like old bones.”
This grave grandiosity is reflected in Richard Hudson’s drawing-room set design. It’s “drenched in Chekhovian grandeur and gloom”, says Akbar, while Brantley admires how it “artfully” evolves as the decades pass. “An ornate cornice hangs over Richard Hudson’s set, at first a symbol of the family’s grandeur but eventually, as everything is stripped away, that grandeur’s only echo,” explains Bano.
Hudson’s design is classily complimented by Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound. The former’s work is “masterly” for Brantley, offering a “sepia haze” that “images of the entire clan, posed as if for posterity” that “become a heartbreaking motif” as the play progresses. The latter’s sound design has a “searing effect”, according to Akbar, “from the smashing of glass that signifies Kristallnacht to the screeching of fighter planes and stomping of boots”.
The overall effect of all this divides the critics. For Akbar, it veers towards the “puzzlingly simplistic and leaden” and for Lukowski it is “overstuffed”. For Curtis, on the other hand, Marber’s staging is “warm” and “emotionally nimble”, while for Crompton it is “clear” and “direct” and for Jan Moir (Daily Mail) it is “simply splendid”.
Adrian Scarborough has a long history of roles on stage and screen, from The Madness Of King George to Killing Eve. His Olivier win came in 2011, thanks to his turn in Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance. And, despite Leopoldstadt being an ensemble show, his performance is picked out by the critics.
As Hermann, the head of the family, he exhibits “extraordinary charismatic sensitivity” according to Crompton, and has never been better according to Curtis. It is a “tremendous performance”, agrees Moir. “His depiction of Hermann’s optimism and hope in the early scenes is almost as affecting as his shuffling diminution towards the end.”
Elsewhere, there is plenty of praise for Faye Castelow as Hermann’s wife Gretl (“finely shaded” for Curtis, “wonderfully tensile” for Crompton), for the multi-roling Sebastian Armesto (full of “despair and bitterness” for Bano), and particularly from Luke Thallon, who arrives late in the play as a thinly veiled portrait of Stoppard himself, attempting to uncover his family’s past. He is “outstanding and emotionally devastating”, says Crompton.
Leopoldstadt, though, is about those not on stage as much as those that are. “The play’s extraordinary potency comes from the way it tackles absence,” explains Bano. “The characters are all so full of life, so garrulous at the beginning, but the cast dwindles, the silences get longer and by the final scene the absences are unbearable.”
But “the real star here is Stoppard, who has, perhaps for the last time, rallied his legions of adjectives and phalanxes of nouns and used them to tell a huge, vital story,” concludes Lukowski.
Of course it is – it’s Sir Tom Stoppard, after all. But it’s not Stoppard as we know him. Leopoldstadt is slower and sadder than his other plays – an emotional, epic history of one Jewish family in Vienna – that asks huge questions about religion, identity and society. It might not be his finest work, but it is definitely his most personal, and his most serious.
Patrick Marber’s production is equally staid – something some of the critics aren’t too sure about – and it features some strong performances, from Adrian Scarborough and Luke Thallon in particular. Only two stars from the Times and three from the Guardian, but fours everywhere else; Stoppard has signed off in style.