The play, “Leopoldstadt,” is set in Vienna, Austria, and follows one Jewish family through the first half of the 20th century.
They start off well-to-do and strongly assimilate into Austrian culture. But over time, they lose almost everything.
Throughout five acts, the play jumps ahead as World War I sweeps through Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire falls; the Nazis take over Austria; and the Holocaust ravages European Jewry.
The family suffers through this dark history, and few survive.
In 2023, the play won a number of Tony Awards, including for best play. Now, a new production of “Leopoldstadt” is being performed in Riga, Latvia. And the choice of director has helped it draw a lot of attention.
“It’s a very important topic for a play. It seems to be a topic that never goes away,” said Malkovich, who had previously performed at the Riga theater as an actor and was invited to return to direct.
Malkovich said he chose to put on “Leopoldstadt” because of his fascination with Viennese history.
“Viennese Jewry was a very important part of the makeup of Vienna, and even with all the assimilation which happened, we still had quite a terrible result,” he said.
“Leopoldstadt” was written by the English playwright Tom Stoppard, and it is considered to be his most personal work.
Stoppard comes from a Jewish family that fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis in 1938. Most of his extended family was killed in the Holocaust, including his four grandparents.
For Malkovich, the play was a vehicle for exploring themes such as identity and assimilation, but also human cruelty.
“Human behavior and the things people can do to other people are always fascinating, and sometimes, highly alarming,” he said. “But it doesn’t take a Holocaust for it to be alarming; it can be alarming in everyday life, by millions of little cruelties.”
“Leopoldstadt” isn’t a simple play to direct. The subject matter is heavy, and it’s an ambitious production, with a sprawling cast.
For Malkovich, the language adds another layer of difficulty — the play is being performed in Latvian.
Diāna Kaijaka, the play’s assistant director, worked closely with Malkovich throughout the auditions and rehearsals to help bridge the language gap.
“I did my best to help with translations in the rehearsal room, and we used these screens where we had the text, Latvian and English side by side,” she said. “So, John could follow it, so he could constantly look at the actors, and just in his peripheral vision, he would see those screens.”
Kaijaka said that Malkovich would listen to the actors as if he were a music conductor. She said that he was quick to pick up some Latvian words, as well.
But overall, Malkovich said that he wasn’t really concerned about the language barrier.
“Language is not really a factor in something like this because they’re human messages; Auschwitz, or Aušvica as the Latvians say, is pretty clear in any language.”
Malkovich said that as a director, he’s looking for something in a performance that’s hard to pinpoint: “The thing you’re listening for is truth, and that’s beyond language, I think. It’s about how a character expresses their view of the world.”
Malkovich mentioned an example from a scene in the play’s first act.
Two characters, Herman and Ludwig, debate the topic of assimilation. Herman describes the heights that Jews have reached in Vienna because of their assimilation. In other words, losing the characteristics that make them Jewish.
Ludwig’s character, in response, says that assimilation doesn’t mean to stop being a Jew: “Assimilation means that you can be who you are and not suffer for it.”
Kārlis Arnolds Avots, who plays Ludwig in the production, said that being directed by Malkovich was a big deal.
“I think that the biggest difference, when you compare him to other directors, is that he doesn’t have this unhealthy ambition, I would say, or, he doesn’t have to prove anything, for us, you know, and it was quite easy and healthy in a creative way.”
Arnolds Avots said that he was motivated by Malkovich’s presence, but his performance didn’t come from a desire to impress him — it came from a more personal place.
“We Latvians, we had a lot of deportations in our history and occupations, and stuff like that,” he said, “And for example, my great-grandfather, Karlis Alfreds Avots, died in Siberia, so, you have to always make it personal, in a way, and that was my approach for making it personal.”
At the end of the play, about a decade after the Holocaust, three of the surviving cousins meet up at the now-empty familial home in Vienna.
One of them, an Englishman named Leo, closely resembles playwright Stoppard.
Leo barely remembers his family history, and he doesn’t show much interest or compassion.
One of his cousins rebukes him and says: “You live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”
Stoppard has said that writing “Leopoldstadt” is that shadow catching up with him.
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