Honour and courage

Tom Stoppard’s roots and Caryl Churchill’s dystopia

Theatre
Ramsey Roberts and Faye Castelow in “Leopoldstadt” at Wyndham’s Theatre (©Marc Brenner)

Critics must take a view on whether to be influenced by external opinions. I try not to read other notices before writing, or discuss productions too much with companions. But what happened at Leopoldstadt (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until June 13) was so unusual that this has to be a Pompidou Centre-review, its internal workings exposed.

This 14th full-length play by Sir Tom Stoppard (a member of this magazine’s advisory board) consists of nine scenes set in Vienna. We meet, in 1899, two Austrian Jewish families as they celebrate the last Christmas (two members have “married out” to Catholics) of the 19th century. We take leave of those left in 1955, when an Anglicised, secularised descendant of the clan learns how many relatives perished in the Holocaust.

My reaction to Leopoldstadt was that it contains two of Stoppard’s greatest scenes. In one, Hermann Merz (magnetically played by Adrian Scarborough) challenges to a duel a soldier who has cuckolded him, but discovers that officers are barred from duelling with Jews, because (a shocking historical detail new to me) Jews have no honour to lose. The other stand-out stand-off is the climactic realisation by the English refugee of the extent to which the Jewish blood he has denied as part of his own identity has been spilled by Hitler.

These exchanges seem clearly to reflect the dramatist’s very belated discovery that his mother came from a Jewish Czech family, many of whom died in Auschwitz; after bringing her sons to England as refugees, she deliberately eradicated the past. This background makes Leopoldstadt a fascinating companion to Rock ’n’ Roll, which implicitly imagined a Tomas Straussler who remained in Czechoslovakia, rather than being reinvented as English schoolboy Tom Stoppard.

There’s also a lovely example of the underpinning by other literary works that are a Stoppard signature in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties, The Invention of Love, and The Real Thing. A character in Leopoldstadt is reading a manuscript copy of a play that a friend is struggling to get published because of prudery. Although never directly stated, this is clearly Reigen (later better known as La Ronde) by Arthur Schnitzler, which has a sexual encounter between a soldier and a woman that is deliberately mirrored by Stoppard.

My caveat was that, after a quarter of a century has passed during the interval, the characters, like doctors or the loved ones of someone who has been in a long coma, deliver extended updates on what has been happening in Austrian politics and psychiatry, the fight for a Jewish homeland and American popular culture. In Travesties, a recent revival of which was the previous collaboration between Stoppard and director Patrick Marber, similar historical exposition is wittily handled through the device of a valet bringing a newspaper; in this play, the actors suddenly become newscasters. Stoppard has a record of significantly revising texts, subsequent editions often markedly different from the first published versions, and he and Marber might usefully look at these passages.

The above five paragraphs would have been my review. But my party included two Jewish Americans, several of whose forebears died in the Nazi camps. Leopoldstadt, they said, resembled the Holocaust Awareness Museum in a small American town—benignly intended but simplistically predicated on the assumption of an audience completely uneducated about Judaism. Speeches explaining Passover and circumcision seemed, they felt, to assume gentile viewers. Imagine, one friend said, a Jewish play that solemnly informed me of the Christmas significance of little baby Jesus.

The content and hostility of this response threw me, but I subsequently heard it from other Jewish theatre-goers. So it seems important, as an English Catholic who enjoyed seeing the play, and even more reading it, to report. Perhaps the problem is that Stoppard has generally written about subjects—moral philosophy in Jumpers, British-Russian exiles in The Coast of Utopia—on which he knows more than almost anyone in the audience. In this case, a significant percentage of theatre-goers will know more than him, and have longer experience of being Jewish.

As with the Austrian historical fill-in speeches, this is an issue of exposition, and, if the reaction of my friends proves more widespread, is perhaps something playwright and director should reconsider if Leopoldstadt is to take its place as top Stoppard, alongside Rosencrantz, Arcadia, Travesties, The Invention of Love, and the TV play Professional Foul.

Stoppard’s near-contemporary and rival for the title of greatest living English dramatist, Caryl Churchill, is simultaneously represented by a 20th anniversary revival of Far Away (Donmar Warehouse, London, until April 4).

This dystopian fable about an underground freedom movement in an unnamed state has a running time of barely 40 minutes, but achieves a sense of depth and darkness hugely disproportionate to this length.

Churchill’s governing metaphor of a factory making fancy-dress hats to be worn by prisoners in a sinister public parade is magnificently realised by Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Lizzie Clachan’s design. In a series of sight-gags slickly achieved by technology, the headgear grows ever more exotically preposterous between blackouts, before we see them sported by two dozen silent extras in something like a totalitarian Ascot.

The Churchill has four speaking parts, the Stoppard 37. Death of England (National Theatre, until March 7) has many, but all are voiced by a single actor. In this 100-minute monologue by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer (who also directs), Rafe Spall is Michael, a 39-year-old East Londoner, from whom we hear before, during and after the eulogy he delivers at his father’s funeral. In this explicitly post-Brexit England, dad may not be all that is dead.

Co-author Williams previously wrote fine plays about the cultural undersides of football (Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads) and boxing (Sucker Punch), and the potential in both sports for racism and redemption is key to Death of England. A final twist is audacious and warming, if implausible. Spall, with a verbal swagger and attack that make you hope the National has stockpiled gargle, interacts with the audience in spars both scripted and ad-libbed: “Oi, why you reading the programme? Cast list? There’s only one of us in it.”