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FringeReview UK 2021


Sonia Friedman Productions

Genre: Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Patrick Marber, Set Designer Richard Hudson, Lighting Design Neil Austin, Sound Designer and Original Music Adam Cork, Movement Emily Jane Bovie, Casting Amy Ball CDG, Chidlren’s Casting Verity Naughton, General management Ros brooke-Taylor and Aaron Rogers for SFP. Till October 30th.


Great plays keep finding their moments. Even though this is the interrupted concluding first run of Tom Stoppard’s 2020 Leopoldstat, the day I saw it in late August the final scene’s terrible recitation of refugees scrambling for visas and the reluctance of host countries to act carries its own terrible echoes.

Just like the delayed American visas in 1939, those too-long delayed papers brandished at Kabul airport tell us how little the collective psychopathy of governments change, how closer to racism, exclusion and hatred we all are again.

Stoppard’s  point in excavating his own family history is more devastating still: no matter how much you assimilate, become in this case Catholic, are indistinguishable from others in a country you know as yours for centuries, you don’t belong. You’re racially othered, singled out, expropriated, exiled at best, extirpated.

Returning with all but five of the original 25-strong cast (plus children), Leopoldstat slow-burns to its devastating litany with power undiminished. There’s the smallest shift in one or two newcomers, but it’s not noticeable.

The play spans 1899-1955, with the two related scenes, 1899 and 1900 taking up nearly half the play. Shorter scenes from 1924, 1938 and finally 1955 follow. The cast tends to reduce, older versions of children appear alongside new characters altogether, until like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, taken up eponymously by Edmund White about the AIDS crisis, there’s just three protagonists: two were boys in 1938 and we’ve hardly met them.

It’s worth briefly outlining the family, and Stoppard gives to men early on the political heft which women are rarely lent. It’s patriarchal and only two women consciously address politics.

Herman Merz the factory-owner is married to Catholic Gretl, a plot-point that’s important later for their son Jacob, wounded in WW1. His sister Eva’s married to wily mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz. Of their children Pauli’s killed in WW1, proudly fighting for the same country Jacob’s wounded for and which rejects them. Their communist daughter Nellie marries first earnest communist Aaron Griffin Stevens) who’s later killed in an uprising. There’s a child and later twist.

Ludwig’s sister Wilma marries the third senior commentator, Ernst the doctor, and of their two daughters – Sally and unmarried Rosa – it’s Sally son Nathan whom we meet as witness. And Rosa, psychiatrist, is another. The other sister Hanna is the later famous concert pianist, though when we meet her she’s eighteen and infatuated.

In such an ensemble first-rate actors like Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Eva, mathematician Ludwig’s wife, flicker vividly. She originally took Hanna (now Natalie Law). Returning after a brief run in the Orange Tree’s Shaw Shorts, Myer-Bennett’s characteristic rich-voiced teasing here glows like a filament and is gone.

Sebastian Armesto’s avuncular, knowing Ludwig spars with Aaron Neil’s cautious doctor Ernst, and with the central elder figure: factory-owner Herman (Aidan McArdle, taking over from Adrian Scarborough) whose gentile wife Gretl Faye Castelow in 1900 finds herself in the arms of a cavalry officer (Fritz, Mark Edel-Hunt). Fritz paid his addresses to luckless Hanna, but – first taste of what’s to come – chooses the non-Jewish married Gretl and refuses a duel with her Jewish husband Herman as against his code.

Castelow moves from knowing lover and guilty supplanter of Hanna to distrait older woman, terminally ill. Law moves from anxious ingenue to dignified concert idol, forced to play tunes she loathes.

Herman’s gradual realisation of how perilous his confident world is threads the crumbling of assimilation. McArdle’s Herman filters a brimming dismay stripping his avuncular nostrums in each scene. First there’s his blocking from the Jockey Club (informed by Edel-Hunt’s sinewy, contemptuous Fritz, always the seducer and dismisser, who’ll reappear) then through a 1924 discussion with a lawyer on the rise of nationalism (Eleanor Wyld’s always urgent Nellie throwing communist warnings), Finally in 1938 he meets the apotheosis of all those warnings.

Directed by Patrick Marber there’s a sure sense of how to move 25 people around in the Wyndham space with aplomb, detailed islands of conversation, and a quiet sparkle of movement in Emily Jane Bovie’s hands. Set designer Richard Hudson gradually strips away his rich mahogany sepia and red Empire set both in the interest of fashion and plot. So we get a sparer 1924, with stripes bright yellows and gramophone, then a more impoverished 1938, things looking neglected and even dust; and finally a bare-boards 1955. Neil Austin’s lighting design plays through the opposite, gradually brightening its palate till there’s nowhere to hide.

We’re subjected at the start and at the interval to a massive slide show of Vienna gradually taking is through the catastrophe of the 20th century. Adam Cork’s both sound designer of eerie noises off and the use first of the 1899 Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht, a surpassing romantic sextet; and later the Waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2. Cork adds pointillistic original music of his own.

Some figures fade quite soon. Clara Francis’ Wilma moves from benign trad mama to an ailing offstage figure. Of her daughters Jenna Augen’s Americanised Rosa is full of blunt counsel, modern and cognisant of Jewish precarity more than most. Avye Leventis’ lively Sally (recalling how sexy Pauli was with Hanna’s daughter cousin Hermine, Macy Nyman, is able to light up 1924 with vacillations over Nathan’s bris, his circumcision, with Hermine’s husband lawyer Otto (Noof Ousellam) through all his dark news offering a cigar-cutter at a sensitive moment. Whereas Otto looks forward to union with Germany, and lays out the polling, Aaron and Nellie counterpoise with left internationalism and darned flags. The feel of 1924 is dominated by sardonically bitter, armless Jacob (again Sebastian Armesto).

Knowing there has to be enough continuity to break in on, Stoppard’s designed November 1938’s climax in two parts, with anxiety filtered through plans for emigration, tardiness contrasted with the urgency of Sam Hoare’s Percy, now offering widowed Nellie and her son Leopold a home in Britain, urging everyone to leave. Herman’s managed to prove Jacob Aryan, by bribing Fritz to say he fathered him with Gretl. Hence Jacob will keep the factory. It’s a last wily thread to dangle a cavalry sword with.

The arrival of Edel-Hunt’s chilling Civilian delivers a gut-punch to all previous  comedy and rich family unfolding, till now more epic than tragic. Even Percy can’t counter the Civilian, though nominally safe.

1955 again sees Armesto as Nathan. In 1938 Ludwig finally discovered a boy who could breathe maths. Now at 31 Nathan’s a Maths professor having survived a concentration camp. Augen’s psychiatrist Rosa back from America had fought hard to get everyone out on a visa. And there’s Stoppard’s alter ago, Arty Froushan’s Leopold, now Leo, thoroughly anglicised adopted son of Percy – a part first taken by Ed Stoppard. The unravelling of Jewishness which Leo feels rather exotic, is devastating.

As Rosa’s harrowing witness fades early in the scene, we’re left with a duologue as she stands by. Nathan pushes Leo to recall a tiny incident needing stitches. It stems from Stoppard’s research into family history. There’s a flitting scene recalled by Rosa from 1900 allowing a ghostly family grouping. Then Armesto and Froushan blend into a final hammer-blow litany with Augen, recalling each member of their family’s fates; even here, there’s surprises.

There’s fine ensemble support from Rhys Bailey as young Nathan, Clara Balingall’s servant Jana, Joe Coen’s Zac and Policeman, Felicity Davidson’s Hilde, Caroline Gruber’s Grandma Emilia, Ilan Galkoff’s Pauli, Jake Neads’ Mohel/Policeman, Alexander Newland’s Kurt, Sadie Shimmin’s Poldi, and sixteen alternating children.

The cumulative mastery of Leopoldstat references some of The Coast of Utopia in scope, The Real Thing and Arcadia in emotional punch, Arcadia, Jumpers and others in the filigree of maths tropes here more lightly patterned; Travesties, Professional Foul, Hapgood, Rock and Roll in political thrust. The end invokes numbers, in a devastating rewrite of the opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Backwards. It’s as if Stoppard can invoke and dismiss his previous selves too, as all the life, jokes, maths testing, laughter of everything he’s known as dramatist and man fines down to this.

It’s good to know even Stoppard was streaming at the end. Even reading the play beforehand (as I did) simply doesn’t prepare you. Each actor seems swept up in some terrible sacrament and the true response would be not applause, but five minutes of silence, if only to recover. If he wrote nothing else now, Stoppard’s written out his theatrical testament. Outstanding.