In the alleyway behind the stage door of Wyndham’s Theatre, a gang of children are larking around excitedly, under the watchful eye of a group of parents and chaperones. There’s a lot of laughter and much high-pitched chatter. These are the child cast – all 18 of them – for Tom Stoppard’s sweeping epic Leopoldstadt, which has just resumed performances, with the children joining 27 adults on stage.
If there is a better and more hopeful sign of London’s theatres coming back to life, it’s hard to think of it. The sheer enthusiasm of the young players is like a breath of fresh air. Patrick Marber looks on and smiles. A terrific playwright in his own right – the author of Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion – he has in his career worn many hats, including as a writer on Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge and as an actor as the hopeless news reporter Peter O’hanraha-hanrahan in The Day Today. He’s also a director, and it was in this capacity that he worked on Leopoldstadt, which was just beginning its eighth sold-out week when lockdown closed the West End.
Acclaimed as a masterpiece, this symphonic saga follows a wealthy Viennese Jewish family from 1899 to 1955, from hopes of assimilation through the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Rapt audiences kept turning up even in the early stages of the pandemic, until finally the decision was taken to close. “I hate a show closing, even when it’s at the end of a run,” says Marber. “So I felt awful when this closed. Really sad. It took a couple of months to get over.”
In contrast, re-rehearsing the play for its reopening, with five new members of the cast and some actors taking different roles, felt like a blessing. “We could rehearse on the stage because the set was still there, like a ghost ship, under plastic. It was sanitised and cleaned up and there we were. It collapsed time for us all. It seems like yesterday we were doing this, not a year and a half. We all had to pinch ourselves a lot – we couldn’t believe our luck to be back. It’s been magical really.”
Marber’s pleasure is obvious as we sit talking at a restaurant table in the open air, watching the audience turn up for the evening’s preview. He’s a thoughtful, quiet man, with a sharp turn of phrase. He talks precisely, in neat, punchy sentences, thinking before he speaks, but totally at ease once he does so.
The play has changed since audiences last saw it. Stoppard has made cuts so it now runs for just over two hours, without an interval. Having been intensely moved by it in its original form, I can imagine how powerful that will be. “It’s really good,” Marber agrees. “You are on the train from the get-go and it doesn’t stop. The structure of the play is more apparent now. I’ve become more aware of its beauty. It’s constructed like music, as Tom’s plays always are. I love it even more than I did first time around.”
Other things have changed too. Marber’s younger brother, Andrew, his only sibling, who suffered from the genetic condition Noonan syndrome, died in February, five days after Leopoldstadt opened. He had been in hospital during the final previews and Marber knew he was dying, but he kept the news from the cast. “It was pretty awful, but I had love and support from the stage management, from Tom and from Sonia [Friedman, the play’s producer]. I had to get the job done. I grieved afterwards. In a way, the pandemic gave me that quiet time to do my grieving.”
His father had died in 2018. “It’s odd that a birth family of four is now two. To lose a parent and a sibling changes you. The absence is profound. When someone dies, you can’t believe they’re not on the end of a phone. I see my father in the street all the time.”
He is very conscious that this experience is one shared by so many families who have lost loved ones due to Covid, and suggests that it might alter the audience’s response to Leopoldstadt. “The change I see for this play is that it is about a large family, and it is about loss as much as it is about anything. I think you watch it in a different way. I think that makes it suddenly even more powerful.”
As for any analogies that might be drawn between the racism and antisemitism now being seen, and the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism, those remain a constant as far as Marber is concerned. “Racism doesn’t go out of fashion, I’m afraid,” he says, with a wry smile. “It may find itself off the leash now, but for as long as I have been alive, I’ve been aware of antisemitism.”
Growing up Jewish in Wimbledon in the 1970s, Marber remembers the National Front marching as if it were yesterday. “They’ll always find a flag to rally round, but I think the quasi-racism of Boris Johnson is new politically, that thing that Trump had of saying, ‘I’m on your side, I know you, I am with you.’ Johnson has never apologised for saying things like Muslim women look like letterboxes. It’s a vote loser to apologise as he sees it. That’s scary, that’s different.”
Marber’s opinion of the government is low. “I think we are badly governed at the moment, and I can’t quite see any way out of that for a while. Badly governed but by a popular government. Which has been the case pretty much throughout my lifetime, but it doesn’t half make you miss Blair and that world.
“I’m a patriot by nature. I love England, and I still think there is greatness in this country.” He pauses, for a long moment. “But I am a bit worried. I can’t see where the inspirational leadership is going to come from. It’s why we go mad for the football, because we feel like a united country, and we all want to feel that, but we don’t in our politics. Brexit has been terribly divisive. I’ll never forgive Cameron for Brexit – it’s a catastrophe and I feel ashamed really that it happened.”
What does he think of Keir Starmer? This time he answers without hesitation. “I like him, but I would really like to direct him, just in terms of performance: sort the voice out, get writers. He’s got to be funnier, he’s got to speak better and he’s got to have a better voice. He needs gag writers and he needs inspirational writers. There’s a great script to be written but narratively he isn’t good enough and I don’t know why he isn’t wise to that. He seems like such a smart guy.”
We’re talking about politics because we have been talking about The Day Today, the razor sharp parody of the television news by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, which first brought Marber to attention, as an actor as well as a writer; one of the characters he played was the clownish O’Hanraha-hanrahan. He also helped Steve Coogan to devise and develop the character of Alan Partridge. BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion has just brought the team back together – though Marber was in technical rehearsals, so had to file his contribution via Zoom.
“It was lovely,” he says. “I love seeing those people again. We are pals for life. I would have preferred a reunion where we were all there working together again. That’s the reunion I long for, but I don’t know if that will ever happen.”
My family watched the show again in lockdown, amazed by how radical it still seems. “It does,” Marber agrees. “It still feels relevant – the humour feels fabulously scrupulous and somehow counter-cultural. Chris and Armando were just brilliant young men. We were their stooges and given a bit of creative freedom, but they led us.”
He doesn’t buy the idea that politics now is so extraordinary that it is beyond satire. “I don’t think anything is beyond parody. The whole way Johnson and his pathetic cabinet has operated, the lying, and the bulls*** and the feeble people he’s employed, the whole thing is just laughable. Except that it’s not. It’s about people’s lives. It’s bloody awful. There have been many times over the last year or so where I just thought – come on Armando, phone me up, let’s do this.”
Lockdown for Marber was a mixed experience. He has suffered from depression in the past and admits he found it challenging. “It was particularly bad at the beginning of the year, I think. The dark months of being locked in until spring. That felt really awful.” But he is careful not to moan; he emphasises his luck at being with his family, his wife Debra Gillet, their three almost grown-up sons, and a new kitten. “And writers are built for lockdown,” he adds. “I got lost in another world.” He managed to complete a script for a film set in 1934, based around the character of the acerbic theatre critic in Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call, and he is beginning to write a sitcom for the actor Tom Hollander. “It was an idea we talked about years ago and I suddenly found myself writing an episode. We aren’t commissioned yet but we hope to be.”
Although most of his plays and theatrical adaptations are to some extent comic, he enjoyed writing pure comedy again. “But I never feel I am writing anything unless I am writing a play. That’s the real job, to get another play written. But I’ve learnt over many years now, I’m not going to write more than one or two a decade. I am slow and I just have to accept it. At least when they come, they come with purpose and meaning. But I will be lucky if I write 10 original plays in my life.”
He has in the past, famously, suffered from writer’s block, with long gaps between pieces. “I feel as if I’m in a permanent essay crisis.” That’s why he loves directing. “It’s much more relaxing. Even if you aren’t feeling calm, you have to simulate it. When you’re directing you have to be a good host, make people feel as comfortable as possible, able to give their best. My favourite times in directing are when everyone else is doing the work. I watch this team I have assembled, getting it all done, and I am just sat there eating jelly babies. It’s such a joy, because you think, ‘Ha! It works.’ Going into print is terrifying – it’s there, it’s solid. But with directing you can make changes, you can muck about with it, it’s a lovely feeling.”
He has made a habit of directing playwrights he admires: Pinter and Mamet as well as Stoppard, who he first worked with on an acclaimed 2016 revival of Travesties, which starred Hollander. “I like directing the work of my heroes and I’m just trying to please my dad, who revered them,” he says, smiling. “I am inspired by these old boys. They are the people I grew up with and it’s a way of paying homage. I suppose I treat old playwrights how I might get treated in my dreams, with some younger person coming along and going, ‘I think you still matter.’”
Next up in his collection of grand old men is Alan Bennett, whose 1973 farce Habeas Corpus he will direct at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with rehearsals starting in November. It’s a play that isn’t often performed, but Marber has wanted to stage it for a long time. “Because it’s so funny and so not of the moment. It’s shockingly incorrect, a farce without the furniture of farce. I think it’s a masterpiece – as good as Noises Off, but much less known.”
Bennett has given him his blessing but says he doesn’t want to be involved in the production, beyond knowing who is cast and what it will look like. “He says he doesn’t like to see revivals of his own plays because he only notices things he doesn’t like.” Stoppard on the other hand was intensely involved in the revival of Travesties and he and Marber have worked very closely on Leopoldstadt, too. “Oh, Tom is all over it,” says Marber, laughing. “He loves all this. He loves being the playwright, seeing the show, talking to the actors… he loves the whole thing of making the work better in incremental ways.”
Night is falling and the curtain is about to go up. Marber talks so fluently that he covers a lot of ground very fast. We’ve only been talking for 40 minutes, but we’ve ranged around, in the same way his career covers many bases: writing, original pieces and adaptations, for film and theatre, directing, acting, comedy. A revelation of lockdown was that he was diagnosed with ADHD.
“I felt quite relieved to get the diagnosis,” he says, thoughtfully. “It explains why I haven’t written many plays, why I find it all so difficult, because actually I am not wired to concentrate, I am wired to flit about, which I’ve been doing my whole career really. It’s why I do so many different things. I can’t sit still. It’s good to know.”
He is still deciding what to do with the diagnosis, and whether to have any treatment. In the meantime, there’s Leopoldstadt, and he is clearly proud of his part in helping such an immense work, which draws strongly on Stoppard’s discovery of the fate of his own Jewish family, on to the stage. “I am just very moved by it. Not just by the play, but by Tom writing this play. Such a private man, and guarded, yet he’s gone, ‘Here’s my heart, have a look at that.’”
‘Leopoldstadt’ is on at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre until 30 October
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