Life & Culture

Leopoldstadt returns: Patrick Marber interview

A few days before Tom Stoppard's play Leopoldstadt opened in 2020, the brother of director Patrick Marber died. The actors didn't know, he tells John Nathan, in an interview to mark the play's reopening this weekend.


 By most measures Tom Stoppard’s latest (and first Jewish) play Leopoldstadt was a triumph when it opened in February last year. Set mainly in the first half of the 20th century, the play centres on a wealthy Viennese Jewish family as they barrel blindly towards the Holocaust. It was well received; there was talk of a New York transfer and Stoppard, his director, fellow playwright Patrick Marber and producer Sonia Friedman (theatre’s Jewish dream team) were riding high. 
Yet unbeknownst to the cast their director was going through his own family trauma just as the play neared opening night. With five days to go, Marber’s younger brother Andrew died. 
“We opened the play on February the 12th and he died on the 17th.  That was pretty grim. During previews I went to the hospital and there was a period where we thought he was going to pull through and then it became fairly clear that he wasn’t. He was moved to a hospice and survived two or three days there.” 
We are speaking on the phone a week before the play’s second opening tomorrow.  Rehearsals are overrunning a tad.  A new principal cast needs to get to grips with Stoppard’s multi-generational epic, though many of the supporting actors from the first run have returned. They didn’t know what Marber was going through when the production was preparing to open for the first time. 
“Tom and Sonia knew my brother was dying but I didn’t tell the actors.  I didn’t want them to worry about their director. They had enough on their plates.  Some of them know now. More will know after this interview,” says Marber. 
Andrew was two years younger than Patrick (now 56) and had Noonan Syndrome, a type of autism.  He had always needed clinical care but  that  his illness and death took place as the threat of Covid was emerging added considerably to the family’s trauma. 
All this emerges as we talk about Leopoldstadt which Marber says “feels even more exciting than it did first time round. 
“It’s a play about a big family who are not so big by the end and a lot of people have experience of that. There’s also a longing for theatre; a longing for community.  We’ve all suffered and are continuing to suffer.  It’s also a play about the love and bonds of family.” 
Those bonds are illustrated in the play’s programme by a family tree which helps the audience keep track of each generation, right down to Leo who, like Stoppard himself might have died at the hands of the Nazis had he not moved to England as a child. Also like Stoppard, Leo became quintessentially English.  
He went to Cambridge (though Stoppard didn’t go there, or indeed to any university) and would, Stoppard and Marber realised, have been a contemporary of Marber’s late father Brian, who was in the Footlights there before becoming a formidable City forecaster (Brian died in 2018). 

There is though a more poignant connection between Marber and Stoppard. At different times each has been presented with their own family tree illustrating those respective relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.  
Stoppard’s was hastily drawn in front of him by a cousin he met in the early 1990s.  There were names of aunts and other relatives who he never knew existed. When Stoppard asked what became of them the one-word answers amounted to a list of concentration camps. This was the moment that would eventually flare into his latest play.  Meanwhile Marber’s family tree was created by his father. 
“What was so striking was that he put an asterisk by the names. You look down at the bottom of the page and it says ‘murdered by the Nazis.’ He didn’t put ‘killed in the camps’ or ‘Holocaust.’ He called it ‘murdered.’ I like that.” 
Marber showed his family tree to Stoppard  who used one of the names in the play. “He wanted a Polish sounding Jewish name.  There was a branch on my tree called Jakobovits and he said ‘Oh, I like that’, so he took it. It was his little tribute to my Polish Jewish heritage.”
Has he ever thought of writing his own play about the Holocaust?  After all, Marber holds that it is the responsibility of all creative Jews to one day address the subject (a conclusion he reached after a series of conversations with the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer who was considering making something about “Nazis, Holocaust, camps”).   

“I feel I’ve kind of done my bit by directing this play,” says Marber.  “But maybe one day I’ll write about it if a story compels me.”  
This is, of course, also conditional on his wanting to write at all.  Didn’t he once say that he doesn’t want to still be writing plays into his 80s? 
“Yeah, but then you look at the example of Tom and you think that must be quite fun, still being good at it in your 80s”, although he thinks it is quite possible that in his 80s he will not care enough about anything to want to write about it. 
“I’d like to drift into retirement and not care about anything really,” he says, somewhat prematurely.  
“But what I’ve learned from Tom and indeed Alan Bennett whose play Habeas Corpus I’m about to direct [for the Menier Chocolate Factory in December] is that they still care. Alan still wants to know about casting and what the set might be like.  I fear caring when I’m old. 
“My dad wanted to work until he died, but I’ve always had a different hope.  I admire Larkin.  He just stopped.  I love his view that ‘I’ve said my piece, I’ve said it well and now I’m going to shut up’. That strikes me as perfect. We all need to shut up eventually.”

Leopoldstadt is at Wyndham’s Theatre from August 7

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