Leopoldstadt – Wyndham’s Theatre
Leopoldstadt is a play about a family. And a society. And a country. And a catastrophe. It feels as though it’s a play about my family although, of course, it is not. Or maybe it is. It is about a repeating tragedy that happened in history, except that this history is even now repeating itself so it’s not history. Or maybe it is, or will become history when our time is written about. Am I being obscure? Sorry. I’ll be more specific.
Leopoldstadt is a new play by Tom Stoppard, set in a drawing room in Vienna across half a century. The Metz family, patriarch Hermann Metz, owns this grand apartment which we see first in 1899. The family is large, prosperous, deeply integrated into Austrian society and Jewish, but not very Jewish. Some are happily intermarried with Christians so no one thinks it odd that Christmas and Passover are equally celebrated in their home. Hermann’s wife, Gretl, is Catholic and currently sitting for a portrait from Gustav Klimt. They are close, and loving, and quarrelsome, and when we meet them at a Christmas gathering at the start of the play it’s hard to tell who is who among the aunts, uncles, cousins and children who populate director Patrick Marber’s crowded stage. They know, and are part of, the many fin-de-siecle innovations of contemporary Vienna from Freud to Klimt to Mahler. They know themselves to be deeply Austrian, no long the Wandering Jews of history, no longer the scapegoats or the outsiders, but intrinsically part of the fabric of Viennese society. Until they’re not.
The undertones of anti-Semitism are always there, though muted. The Metz children almost never hear them, although when Hermann challenges Gretl’s lover to a duel to defend his honour, the arrogant young officer refuses on the grounds that Jews have no honour to defend. There are clubs Hermann cannot join, charitable societies the women are excluded from, Hannah is rejected as too Jewish to marry the man of her choice. The family textile business has to make its alliances along narrow lines. But life is pleasant, rich, bountiful. Until it’s not.
The atmosphere changes, imperceptibly, until, in 1938, the Nazis arrive. For those who believed it would all blow over, that Hitler was an aberration, that Nazism was an unpleasant fringe movement that would quickly be quashed by the authorities, that they themselves weren’t really Jews but loyal Austrians whose patriotism would soon be properly recognised, it was too late.
We meet the family again, just three of them, in 1955, in the now empty apartment. There is a young Englishman we don’t remember having met before but he turns out to be the boy who, by luck and judgment was removed from danger, like Stoppard himself, and has grown up in England, a typical cricket-loving Englishman without the least understanding of his family history or even that he is Jewish. This is Stoppard’s own story, rigorously truthful and unsparing of himself and his careless ignorance.
In such an enormous cast it sems churlish to single out performances but Adrian Scarborough’s Hermann conveys the strength of the man and his bewilderment at the several betrayals which destroy his belief in every bedrock of his life. Faye Castelowe’s elegant faithless Gretl and Jenna Augen’s stalwart Rosa are standouts as is Luke Thallon as the Stoppard alter ego.
The final scene of Leopoldstadt (Leopoldstadt, by the way, was the traditionally Jewish area of Vienna although, of course, the Metz apartment is in a far more salubrious neighbourhood) is one of the most moving and shocking I have ever seen in a play, staged by Patrick Marber with meticulous care, where the entire family we met in that happy first scene, again assemble, this time to reveal the fate of each of them. To report that this is emotional is to understate its impact. The Japanese gentleman next to me, a stranger, was weeping and unconsciously took my hand in a gesture of human solidarity.
If you are Jewish or Muslim or gay or just an ‘outsider’, you already know that similar catastrophes are again looming no matter how insulated you may feel yourself to be. Leopoldstadt is a fine and important play. It is also a warning.
Be More Chill – The Other Palace
We have been treated, if that’s the right word, to no fewer than three recent plays set in American high schools. All are US imports and have been lauded in their native land. They all feature sad teenagers who ‘find’ themselves by the end and are no longer misfits. Or, they are, and it’s all right. In other words, they grow up. Dear Evan Hansen is the best of them. Much awarded, it is a musical worthy of its many Tonys as it negotiates not only the embarrassment of being young but also the dire consequences of pretending to be what you’re not. It also has a fine collection of songs sung by a cast led by a brilliant young actor only recently out of drama school. I also very much liked Teenage Dick at the Donmar which is a high school retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard 111 also led by a fine young actor who is as disabled as the leading character and overcomes that disability with an insouciance which brought the audience to its feet. Teenage Dick has important things to say about the fact that not all disabilities are visible.
But now we have Be More Chill, a piece of noisy nonsense rescued from obscurity by legions of teenage fans via social media. A few songs from a show staged for one month in the boondocks somehow made it to off-Broadway and then to Broadway. It’s an adaptation of a novel for young people about a misfit boy persuaded to take a pill to make him popular, only to discover, you guessed it, that he can be popular without it. Somehow these songs, disseminated via YouTube and other platforms, hit the charts and a groundswell of teenage angst has propelled it to worldwide success. Well, we all know there’s a lot of teenage angst out there. There are some good projections, one good song, and one good performance from a young singer called Blake Patrick Anderson. Doesn’t seem quite enough, does it?
The Upstart Crow – Gielgud Theatre
Everyone loves to be thought clever. I’m as guilty as anyone. Recognising an obscure Shakespearean quote is one of those particularly satisfying forms of one-upmanship that is harmless and delightfully nutritious to the ego. ‘Oh, Pericles of course’, will drive your friends mad, especially that ‘of course’. But if you go too far with ‘of course’ you’re likely to be struck off every dinner party guest list in North London so I try to keep it as a solitary pastime. Due to bad planning and too much work I never managed to see a single episode of Upstart Crow, the television sitcom, but I knew it was hugely popular, especially by the kind of people who love a nice quote-fest. I’m good at this game. Well, I would be, wouldn’t I, so I was really looking forward to The Upstart Crow because I just knew it would boost my ego no end, what with its promise of endless quotes which I’d be able to identify in an orgy of self-congratulation.
The kindest thing I can say is that if you liked the sitcom you’ll love the play. Surrounding me in the stalls of the Gielgud theatre were hoards of people who had loved the sitcom. They laughed at the set, at the lighting, at the costumes (well, they are funny) and they not only laughed but roared their approval at every word and gesture of the supremely talented David Mitchell as a hapless hangdog Shakespeare, and the rest of the cast. This includes two young women playing Shakespeare’s daughters with Brummy accents so intentionally insulting that if I were from Birmingham I’d sue. I couldn’t identify their Shakespearean quotes because I couldn’t understand a word they spoke.
The Bear was my favourite member of the cast, the bear on whom the entire plot depends, the one most easily identifiable stage direction in the entire canon – OK,OK, if you insist, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ – eagerly awaited by the whole audience until it becomes, not surprisingly, the curtain line. The Bear has no quotable lines at all but his dancing speaks volumes. Shakespeare would have approved, if not his portrayal as a poor schlep with nothing much going for him, as that a play about him that he didn’t even write was going to be a stonking big hit.
La Cage aux Folles (The Play) – Park Theatre
It takes a lot to make me laugh in the theatre. Often, the hysterical laughter of others induces nothing but grumpy silence in me (viz. Upstart Crow) but La Cages aux Folles (The Play) is the funniest play I've seen in ages. Unless, of course, you disapprove of men dressed as women or hate theatrical camp. In which case, Endgame is still playing at the Old Vic. It’s hard to believe that the boulevard farce that Jean Poiret wrote for himself and Michel Serrault in 1973, and which ran in its original production in Paris for five years, has never been done in English. Indeed, it has been a French farce, three separate movies, and a ground-breaking Jerry Herman musical in numerous productions, but it has never been done as a play in English on either the London or New York stage.
So now here it is – wonderfully translated and adapted by Simon Callow in its original setting of a San Tropez drag club in the 1970s with all the freedoms and restrictions of its time. The French were then, and are still, both more sexually liberated than we Anglo-Saxons and more uptight about the conventions of Catholic domestic life. The club, La Cage aux Folles itself, is an escape from the conventional morality of French society and an island of acceptability in a still edgy community.
The story is of a long time marriage between Georges and Albin which is shaken by the announcement of their son Laurent – the result of a one-night experiment between Georges and a showgirl 20 years ago – that he wants to marry the daughter of a politician bent on moral ‘cleaning up’. Laurent begs Georges to entertain his putative parents in law and invites his birth mother, the former showgirl, to come to dinner too. Georges, in a sober suit and tie, tries to get the more flamboyant Albin to stay away. Instead, Albin, dressed in a suitable print dress, represents himself as Laurent’s mother, which, for all practical purposes, he is, and one of the funniest dinner party scenes of all time ensues.
What makes this marvellous evening work is the underpinning of seriousness under the mad farce. Georges and Albin, however unconventional their dress and manners, have built a successful business, they have raised an impeccable son together, they have made a home over many years and, in their club, have given sanctuary to many other gay men who could not find a place in the straight world. By almost any standards, they are a success. But that success is now threatened by the father of Laurent’s fiancée and somehow they have to find a way to reverse that threat.
After a week of staring sullenly at several shows that were meant to be funny and weren’t, I screamed with laughter at La Cage aux Folles (The Play) while admiring its ethos and execution. Bravo, Simon Callow, director Jez Bond, and a hardworking cast who all have something to say and are saying it brilliantly.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.