Tag Archives: Tom Stoppard

“Leopoldstadt” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Start your play with a Jewish family in turn of the century Vienna and an audience is sure to have expectations. Tom Stoppard knows this, of course, there’s little Tom Stoppard doesn’t know. But the craft behind his new history play is a marvel. And the emotional power of Leopoldstadt every bit as strong as you’d imagine.

Starting in 1899, things are convivial and a little confusing. We’re introduced to Hermann Merz and an extended family that – like the cast – is huge. As we see them grow up, and the family grow, it’s tough to keep track. Thankfully, Aidan Mcardle and Faye Castelow take the lead as Mr and Mrs Merz, with marital troubles and his conversion to Christianity, to focus on.

Faye Castelow in LEOPOLDSTADT photo credit Marc Brenner
Faye Castelow

The discussions are fascinating and highbrow – after all, this is Vienna and they are Jewish! Identity, mostly, but all manner of politics and culture. There’s a sense of excitement and pride about the city that roots the play. Stoppard sets out issues clearly – it’s a great lesson in intellectual history – but also makes debates feel alive as the characters live them.

Admiration for the cast grows as their characters age. Mcardle and Castelow triumph as Stoppard takes us to the end of their characters’ lives. Jenna Augen’s Rosa, an American relation, is also a highlight with a performance that goes from strength to strength. And it is a thrill to see relatively small roles so fully developed. Sam Hoare is just one example as a British journalist who marries into the family. Director Patrick Marber has neglected nothing, like Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s exquisite costumes, the attention to detail is winning. A sense of grandeur and respect appropriate to the subject infuses the show.

If there are slower moments, the dramatic point behind the depth and detail brought to Leopoldstadt becomes clear as history progresses. A family encounter with Nazi’s is difficult to watch. Seeing the characters, we have so deftly been made to respect and admire, cowered and humiliated is painful. What happens feels unbelievable. Shocking. And that’s quite an achievement when we all know the awful history.

Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto
Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto

Stoppard gives us the space to think about history. A scene set in 1955 focuses on the encounter between a younger generation: Leo, who escaped to Britain, and Nathon, who has survived a concentration camp. If Sebastian Armesto and Arty Frouhsan play the roles broadly, they match the peculiar underlying tension to the scene which compliments the extremes of their experience. As Leo learns the fates of his family from Augen (who makes Rosa’s suffering palpable) we are made aware of how close we’ve become to them all leading to a conclusion of intense theatrical power.

Until 30 October 2021

www.leooldstadtplay.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“A Separate Peace”from Remote Read

Welcome as the recorded shows helping theatre-lovers on lockdown are, a live stream is a lot closer to what we really love. It’s exciting even to wait for something to happen, let alone watch in real time.  Albeit a brief half hour show, labelled a reading rather than a performance, this offering from the Remote Read project is warmly welcome.

The choice of Tom Stoppard’s short, from 1964, shows itself as appropriate to our current situation gradually – it’s about a man who wants to do nothing. Arriving at the “A1” Beachwood Nursing Home, willing to pay to stay, Mr Brown wants “privacy and clean linen” in his search for a safe space. Stoppard develops a mystery, then a romance, and his patient with patience intrigues throughout.

There’s a lot of talent – working remotely, remember – to bring out the best in the piece. Director Sam Yates has done an excellent job with a starry cast. David Morrissey takes the lead as the “likeable” Brown, bringing out a lovely humour with suitably gnomic remarks working hard. Denise Gough introduces considerable tension as a Doctor trying to work out what is going on, with Ed Stoppard as the vaguely exasperated Matron. A subtle love interest with young nurse Maggie, played by Jenna Coleman, is made tender and touching. Coleman and Morrissey build up a great sense of togetherness – all the more remarkable when you remember they aren’t in the same room.

It is still hard to forget this is a Zoom meeting, no matter how different it is from one you’d have for work. Performing against a white background isn’t without problems, and I’d like to know if the number of screens viewers are shown can be controlled better. But these are mere technical glitches, and the storytelling in the show undoubtedly works. Behind the questions of Brown being “a crook or a lunatic”, which Yates allows to be explored so well, he is a challenging figure. Stoppard leaves open suggestions of background trauma, such that his character retains an air of enigma. Brown’s search for peace makes him something of a mystery, and hugely suited to puzzling over under imposed isolation. 

www.theremoteread.com

“Travesties” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Wearing his director’s hat, Patrick Marber has excelled with this revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play. A characteristically dense affair, it uses the flawed reminiscences of an English diplomat in Zurich, one Henry Carr, to bring together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, thus covering politics, literature and art. You need to pace yourself to keep up.

Formally inventive, Stoppard uses speeches, verse and songs, while modifying Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (if you need a reason, Carr performed the play in his youth). The elderly Henry suggests his memoirs could be a collection of sketches, and Marber embraces this to create some vaudeville scenes worthy of Cabaret Voltaire. Carr’s dementia is a wicked parallel to free association, ironically utilised in this satisfyingly controlled puzzle of postmodern plenitude.

Carr observes that as an artist you have to “pick your time and place” and in choosing such a fertile moment in European history, applying his own frame and distorting it, Stoppard has the audience enthralled. OK, it’s difficult to imagine many erudite enough to get their heads around the whole thing (you’d have to be as clever as, well, Tom Stoppard), but it’s great fun trying to keep up. It’s so crammed with humour that getting just half the jokes makes it worth it.

There’s a lot going on in Henry’s head, and Tom Hollander’s finest moments come when memories overwhelm his irascible character. Playing his younger self, he makes the comedy work hard. Stoppard even provides the review for his lead actor: parts don’t come much more demanding than this and Hollander really is superb. This this is a technically brilliant performance, the aged voice truly remarkable.
The rest of the cast seem spurred on by Hollander’s star turn, making each role memorable. Freddie Fox is superbly cast as the decadent Tzara – his switch to Wildean mode is faultless. Peter McDonald and Forbes Masson manage to make, respectively, Joyce and Lenin men you can laugh with as well as at. Clare Foster and Amy Morgan’s witty singing battle as Cecily and Gwendolen is a highlight in a show that has no shortage of brilliant moments. Stoppard and Marber run from any potential the play might have toward pretention. Just don’t forget to take a breath yourself.

Until 19 November 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Hapgood” at the Hampstead Theatre

Receiving a first London revival since a 1988 première, Tom Stoppard’s spy spoof has a reputation for being a difficult play. What’s new? An unashamedly intellectual writer, Stoppard here mixes espionage and particle physics with his usual panache. It’s a satisfyingly challenging piece that’s also hugely entertaining.

Fun is had with the spy genre itself. Stoppard plays with stock scenarios – the opening scene has not one but three suitcases being swapped around – and laughs at the often clichéd language used, including Alec Newman’s charming Russian quintuple agent whose cover has been “blowed”. The Cold War tension is deliberately deflated; the secrets at stake here aren’t worth much in the end.

Alec Newman and Tim McMullan

Newman also carries the weight of explaining a lot of the science (complete with a checklist of big names) that’s the real theme of the play, and does exceptionally well to inject passion into the parallels between plot and physics. Secret agents are just a “trick of the light” and how light behaves is influenced by the very act of observation. Hapgood is thought provoking and original.

It’s the central character of the titular spymaster that pleases most. In a brilliant performance, Lisa Dillon shows her understanding of Stoppard’s layered text. Dealings with the big boss Blair (Tim McMullan in a role he was born for) along with no nonsense about her high achievements are understated comic marvels. There are canny observations on class throughout the play.

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Lisa Dillon as Hapgood with her son (Adam Cansfield)

When it comes to carrying the tension, Dillon gets even better. Introducing twins, surely not too much of a giveaway, Stoppard further combines the science and spies. Hapgood’s role as “Mother” provides emotional weight when her son becomes embroiled in the spying game. Common to lots of high-quality genre fiction, the complexity of our hero is used to terrific effect.

The play benefits from director Howard Davies’ experienced hand – the pacing, when it comes to explaining the science, is perfect. And the plot is presented in a visually clear fashion thanks to Ashley Martin-Davis’ stylishly simple set and effective video backdrops from Ian William Galloway. Above all, the script should please any Stoppard fan and Hapgood deserves to be part of his canon.

Until 23 January 2016

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

“Shakespeare in Love” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Films brought to the stage are often maligned, but Shakespeare in Love, which opened this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, should make all playgoers happy. Theatre power couple Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, world renowned for their Cheek by Jowl Company, make it a hot ticket. Skillfully adapted by Lee Hall, from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar winning 1998 hit, this is a clever crowd pleaser it’s easy to recommend.

Hall wisely retains much of the original script. All the jokes created by a modern eye on the imagined creation of Romeo and Juliet are as funny as ever. The romance is preserved and the story’s second love affair – with the theatre – is expanded. The ensemble engender an intimate complicity as they remain on stage to interact with the young playwright Will during his hopeless love affair with the aristocratic Viola De Lesseps.

With the movie in our minds the performers have a lot of live up to – it was a film with no shortage of stars. The cast acquit themselves well, with David Oakes benefiting most from a beefed up role as Christopher Marlowe. Director Donnellan uses the many small roles to focus attention on the lovers – showing their differences in rank and contrasting overblown acting with their sincerity as the romance mirrors and molds that of the fictional Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare In Love 6 - Company with Tom Bateman as Will. Photo by Johan Persson ∏Disney
Tom Bateman

In the star roles Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen give exciting performances. Bateman has the looks for a leading man and gives Will a Byronic feel that he builds well. Briggs-Owen is full of ambition, keen to get the laughs and conveying a spirit that makes you fall in love with her character. Viola is the star and her desire to become an actor is the motivation that is inspirational.

Donnellan marshals Shakespeare in Love with efficiency and Ormerod’s set is impressive. Could the play have been more adventurous? Probably. The finest addition is the music from Paddy Cunneen that has a boldly crafted authentic feel. But the production sensibly decides to please those who loved the film and here it’s an unqualified success. There’s even a dog that almost steals the show – sure proof those in charge know what people want: love, and a bit with a dog.

Until 25 October 2014

www.shakespeareinlove.com

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 23 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Having to write about a play can spoil watching it. Many a schoolchild has been put off Hamlet, trying to fathom out what happens, conscious they will be examined on it. It’s a relief to find that in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters are in the same situation; baffled by the unfolding plot and their role in it, their predicament creates a special affinity with the audience.

Tom Stoppard, of course, knows exactly what is going on, in his hands we never feel too scared – just highly entertained. Stoppard’s first masterpiece, from 1965, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, doesn’t feel dated in the slightest – its intelligent humour shines forth. Seeing the events in Hamlet unfold via once minor, now major characters, we are introduced to the theme of free will, with speculation on aesthetics, and dazzling verbal badinage.

Stoppard’s dexterous writing is well served in director Trevor Nunn’s superb production. Having missed out on the chance to direct the plays premiere, Nunn relishes the opportunity now. There is an appropriate exuberance in his direction that does him credit.

Arriving from the Chichester Festival the production is already polished. The Players that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter make a convincing ensemble of tatterdemalions. Times are tough for performers, they will “stoop to anything” to entertain, and as their leader Chris Andrew Mellon conquers, hilariously guiding our heroes around the artifice of the world they are trapped in.

In the lead roles, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, the one-time History Boys, are reunited, and this duo needs no lessons in comedy. Parker explains their predicament marvellously: seeking logic and justice in the theatre, fate means they are condemned to “death followed by eternity”, with their roles puzzled over forever more. But Barnett literally runs rings around his colleague, getting every laugh going and showing that Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a very lively affair indeed.

Until 20 August 2011

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 22 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Real Thing” at the Old Vic

The Real Thing is a relatively simple play for Tom Stoppard. There’s no time travel or astronauts and you don’t need to know about minor characters in other plays. It is the playwright’s meditation on love, a story about the ups and downs of relationships, the questioning of whether an emotion felt is genuine and what repercussions this may have.

Of course, there is more to it than that. The main character is Henry, a successful playwright, celebrated for his keen intellect. Ring any bells? As we follow his married life we are treated to amusing insights into the theatre that mirror the characters’ actions.

Still, this is Stoppard with slightly less philosophy. Henry ruminates on how our perspective alters a situation, but this is to investigate emotion rather than metaphysics. It’s a question of aesthetics. The search is for a subjective truth – the qualitative difference between Bach and Henry’s preferred Procol Harum are down to him, as are the judgements of his love life.

All this is highly entertaining – it is bound to be with Stoppard’s witty script and Toby Stephens’ excellent delivery. He is convincingly aloof and skilled at slowly revealing the complexities of his character. Generally unlikeable for his smug condescension, when he does show emotion you realise how involved you have become. It is a masterfully seductive performance.

Despite his ability, Stephens doesn’t steal the show. It seems the only people more amusingly self-obsessed than writers are actresses. Henry enters into relationships with two. The always-excellent Fenella Woolgar delivers lines in deadpan fashion. She plays Henry’s first wife Charlotte who is replaced by Annie (Hattie Morahan). The latter provides dramatic edge when we encounter the new couple breaking up their marriages, passion during their ‘honeymoon’ period and real emotion when their relationship becomes troubled.

Both women contrast with Henry. After years of marriage Charlotte is more than aware of his failings, and Annie’s political convictions provide a foil (albeit an ironic one) to his nonchalance. Henry learns that his deep commitment and Romantic notions are perceived as carelessness and is accused of being too intellectual. Barnaby Kay touchingly defends the wife who is about to leave him by saying that Henry’s life and work fail to deal with the ‘messy’ stuff that really counts. Stoppard has his eye on this – there are dirty handkerchiefs and mucky innuendo here but it doesn’t quite convince. Henry’s well-drawn teenage daughter Debbie (Louise Calf) makes a great debut pointing out that all this angst and debate is all just for the ‘architect’ classes.

Stoppard is too clever not to know that he is falling into this trap. While Debbie’s free love solution to the problem is swiftly and suitably dismissed, there is too much reliance on the fact that love is universal to avoid the problem she highlights. It is difficult to see who would identify with these characters or find them aspirational. Even with all the skill and intelligence on display here we aren’t involved enough and fail to connect. Stoppard’s ‘less is more’ approach doesn’t quite deliver.

Until 5 June 2010

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 April for The London Magazine

“Arcadia” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

If there is one thing in the theatre world everyone can agree on, it is that Tom Stoppard is clever. He knows a lot about a lot and is good at explaining complicated things that leave the rest of us baffled.
The subject matter of Arcadia is a case in point – a heady brew of landscape gardening, literary studies and physics, played out in one room with alternate acts set in the 18th century and modern times. A rich mix, indeed, and one that potentially overwhelms.

The cleverest thing about Stoppard is that he manages to get the audience not just understanding these subjects but also caring and laughing about them.

Credit goes to the cast. Dan Stevens plays the charismatic tutor Septimus Hodge . His role is to explain 18th-century arts and science to both the audience and his prodigious pupil Thomasina Coverly . A painful desire for his mistress Lady Croom is complicated by a touching flirtation with his pupil, and he conveys not just a passion for his studies but also a great sexual presence. Both women, Jessica Cave and Nancy Carroll respectively, present their characters with fitting complexity and make the most of Stoppard’s wonderful ear for period language to great comic effect.

In the present day, the explaining is done by mathematics student Valentine (Ed Stoppard). His brooding presence is so intense as to be unlikeable, and his irritation over the supposed simplicity of iterated algorithms sounds false. This time, explication is for the benefit of the audience and Samantha Bond ’s historian, whose performance becomes inexplicably shrill.

The love triangle in modern times is completed by rival academic Bernard Nightingale , a morally distasteful character portrayed by Neil Pearson, who has surely paid far too much attention to one textual reference about his bouncing around.

Through science and art these two worlds come together. Thomasina’s brilliance foresees the great mathematical discoveries Valentine is working on. Both historians retrace events concerning the earlier set of characters.

But, despite its humour, Arcadia is a melancholy work with a gentle sense of tragedy. The mathematics aren’t understood in the 18th century – with disastrous consequences. Both historians are blinded by their ambition for either professional advancement or to prove an ideological point and make mistakes about what really happened in the past. Attempts to created a paradise garden on earth or to explain that earth with a grand Theory of Everything are inevitably doomed to failure .


Despite all the laughs, destruction seems to be the only outcome of our investigations. What hold us are those brief moments of joy along the way – the journey through Arcadia rather than the place itself.

Until 12 September 2009

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 8 June 2009 for The London Magazine