Leopoldstadt is a sprawling saga of a play from Tom Stoppard. It follows a large Jewish family in Vienna from 1899 to 1955, but it is actually echoing Stoppard’s own family history and heritage, much of which he came to somewhat late in life.
You don’t need to know that he was born in Czechoslovakia, that his family was Jewish, that they escaped to Singapore, and that their father did not survive the next escape which, if the ship had turned left rather than right would have bought him to Australia rather than to India. There his mother remarried and an English stepfather ensured that Stoppard was brought up to be very English indeed. It was only in his fifties that the extent of his Jewishness and the devastation of the family that remained in Europe became clear.
You don’t need to know this because Leopoldstadt stands up on its own.
What happens in this play is the tracing of the outcomes for a family in Vienna. The cast is huge, mirroring al kinds of experiences and compromises while tracking the political changes that make life increasingly difficult for Jews and for those connected with them. Kristallnacht is a central terrifying image as is the breaking up of the family by the Nazis.
After the war the survivors and descendants are thin on the ground. One has, like Stoppard, become English. It’s the agonising reconnection of this character with his history and his past that provides the hammer blow that ends the play.
This is a short notice - full cast information seems to be thin on the ground and there is only one more chance to catch this in Canberra (Dendy Wed Feb 9 at 10.30 am). But there may well be online options.
In a month that will finally (Covid permitting) see Canberra Rep’s long anticipated production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s been fascinating to see where Stoppard’s lifetime of work has led.
And what would have happened had that ship turned left?