The latest and, if reports are correct, possibly last play to be written by Tom Stoppard, now 82, is not his greatest work.
It has little of the flair that burst onto the stage in 1966 with his Hamlet-inspired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and which was reignited at regular intervals with works that became modern classics: Jumpers (1972), The Real Thing (1982), Arcadia (1993), to name but three.
But when you are held by many to be the world’s greatest living playwright, you don’t always have to be at your best to produce something extraordinary.
This is the play that Stoppard could never have envisaged writing before he discovered in late-ish middle age that his Jewish roots were far stronger and deeper than he ever imagined. It was a discovery crystallised by the realisation that most of his Czech family including three of his maternal aunts, who he previously never knew existed, were murdered in the Holocaust along with his grandparents on both sides.
Directed by Patrick Marber, Stoppard’s fellow dramatist and, it can now be said, Jew, the play is epic in size and scope with a cast of nearly 40. Rather than setting it in Czechoslovakia, the country of Stoppard’s birth, the action takes place almost entirely in a single Viennese apartment and spans 55 years.
Richard Hudson’s design conveys the wealth of its industrialist owner Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough) with as little set as possible – an ornate but empty picture frame hangs on the far wall; greco-roman cornicing borders the ceiling. It is Christmas 1899, a sign of just how assimilated the Jews in this play feel themselves to be, even though later we witness a seder a bris and a harrowing representation of Kristallnacht.
The play is mostly populated by two families, the Merzs and the Jakoboviczs who are linked by marriage. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is the wife of mathematics lecturer Ludwig Jakobovicz, played by Stoppard’s son Ed in one of the stand out performances of the production.
In the opening scene the two families number twelve people and four generations, including Hermann’s mother Emilia (Caroline Gruber) and her grandchildren. It is no plot spoiler to say that by the end of the half century or so the play spans the stage is occupied by far fewer people.
Yet this inevitability is not really Stoppard’s point. Rather what he seems most exercised by is a particular element of what might be called the Jewish condition – that Jews can never choose to be not Jewish no matter how big the Christmas tree in their living room.
It is a theme explored during dense and at times declamatory discussion, particularly between Ludwig and Hermann who is married to Catholic Gretl (Faye Castelow) but who was baptised long before he met her.
Yet for Ludwig, an “unbeliever” who only “observes Jewish customs” as a “souvenir to family ties”, Hermann will never be able to assimilate in the way he hopes, despite being a passionate patron of Viennese high culture and having his son baptised and circumcised in the same week.
True assimilation, argues Ludwig, should not be about being absorbed into non-Jewish society, but about “carrying on being a Jew without insult.”
“Episcopalians are assimilated. Zoroastrians are assimilated. I could be Druid for all my professors care. It’s only the Jews!” he says.
Developing the picture frame as a kind of motif, Marber composes each scene like a family portrait which can make for a sometimes static two and a half hours. As the families progress through the first half of the twentieth century, black and white projections of Viennese Jewish life serve as mute testimony to what is about to be lost.
It is left to the play’s final scene to convey this as drama. Here, Nathan (a superb Sebastian Armesto) and Rosa (Jenna Augen) visit the apartment in which they and their forebears lived and visited. Joining them is the Vienna-born, English-raised Leo, a writer whose relationship to the Holocaust has much in common with that of this play’s author.
That this scene is devastatingly moving is almost besides the point. Granted, you wonder how a younger Stoppard might have incorporated Vienna’s titans of thought and culture who are here only acknowledged rather than represented. But in the way this play’s devastating end follows an evening of largely intellectual stimulation, as in say Arcadia, in that sense at least it is possible to say that this is classic Stoppard.