Margaret Quinn observes that in Waiting for Godot (1953) hats, like their owners, have become indistinguishable. According to Beckett's typically sparse direction, '[All four wear bowlers]' and, as these hats are bartered over and swapped between the characters, they forge a link between the ever-blurring roles of Vladimir (the intellectual), Estragon (the sensualist), Pozzo (the master) and Lucky (the slave). Patrick Marber tells me he was an avid reader of Beckett as a student at Oxford in the 1980s. Now seated outside a coffee shop in Holborn, he takes inspiration from Beckett, reaching inside the play-world of Godot to retrieve a hat. For Marber, thinking about different hats is an act of demarcation—one he uses in his own life, to set boundaries between his various artistic roles. 'Writer hat. Director hat. Occasional performer hat'. Worn for one thing, replaced for another.
We order our coffees and he assures me that he never gets bored of this hat-swapping routine. It's what he always 'dreamed of doing'. As our conversation moves between his work as playwright, director and comedian, I slowly feel myself slipping into this Marberian world, where hats are donned, discarded and then replaced.
Marber is currently wearing his director hat. When we meet, in January 2020, he is five weeks into rehearsals for Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard's first play in five years and perhaps his last (Britain's greatest living playwright is now eighty-two). So, it's a big play? 'Yes. It has thirty to forty speaking roles, twenty-six actors and fifteen children, so a massive project', Marber responds, seemingly unfazed by the commanding heights of the theatrical world that Stoppard occupies.
This is not the first time Marber has directed Stoppard. His 2016 revival of Travesties (1974) was highly regarded in London and on Broadway, where he was nominated for a Tony. However, all the early press on Leopoldstadt seems to suggest that this is a very different piece of work from Travesties and Stoppard's other plays. 'Yes, this one has a slightly different feel'. He pauses for a long time. And then, as if returning from the school auditorium where he first saw Stoppard performed as a fourteen-year-old, finishes his thought: 'It feels like a Stoppard play, and it feels like a new Stoppard play where he is doing something different'.
I press him on this, hoping that he'll confirm what little information has been released about the play: principally that it's Stoppard's first to draw on his own life. This, for a playwright who, when asked where he gets his ideas from, has often replied 'Harrods', seems unexpected. However, Marber cautions me from thinking about Leopoldstadt in these terms. 'I'm not sure that's true. I think he always writes personally. I don't think playwrights can escape being personal’. 'But', he admits, 'this one is different in that it feels so close to the bone. The subject matter is so intense’.
Set in Jewish Vienna between 1899 and 1955, Leopoldstadt is ‘a history play, a history of Vienna in that time'; a history that lies in the shadow of what will come with the Anschluss in 1938. Specifically, this is Stoppard's personal history. His past is altered, transferred and redistributed through the characters in the play. 'There is no character in the play who is necessarily Tom, but if you know anything about Tom's life, you'll see what he's done'.
Stoppard was born not in Austria but Czechoslovakia as Tomas Straussler in 1937. As the Nazis invaded the country, Stoppard escaped with his mother and his brother. All four of his grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust. The family never spoke about this, and Stoppard never asked. This changed in the early 1990s, when an elderly cousin visited and drew a family tree for him. The majority of names were accompanied by the tragic phrase: ‘died at Auschwitz’. This scene appears almost word for word in Leopoldstadt. However, it's more than a private history of the Straussler family. 'It's about global antisemitism. It's almost a history of antisemitism'.
I wonder if Marber's own Jewish identity has influenced his approach to the play. 'I'm Jewish. I feel the play personally', he replies. This is Patrick Marber: visibly moved, hatless. But instantly he's the director again, and tells me that any attempt to curate his personal response to the play on stage would be 'an act of foolish ego'. 'I'm a bit of a purist as a director. My job is to deliver what the playwright has written as simply and cogently as possible and not impose myself on the play and the production. I'm trying to get you to look at the play through as clean a window as I can deliver’. And when we look through this window? 'Ultimately the play should move you… or it won't. If it doesn't move you, then I've failed’.
This appears to be a departure from Travesties, a 'fireworks show' played for laughs. 'Travesties was a comedy, and Leopoldstadt is definitely not a comedy. It's got some funny bits in it, but it's a drama, not a comedy'. Now Marber cautions himself. 'With Stoppard, you can't really say it's a play about one thing. It's a play about many things simultaneously. That's what literature is, though. In the end, from year dot, writers are interested in two or three things at once and the complexity of these relationships'. I've come to expect the pause that comes next and it gives me time to fill in the blanks. Art is about lots of different things happening at the same time? 'Like life, isn't it?'
This world of synchronised randomness is one which Marber sketches in his own work as a writer. In his plays, characters often exist across time and space, bumping into each other on the way as they forge new and chaotic chronologies. Closer (1997), his most acclaimed piece to date, is the story of four strangers falling in and out of love. By the end of the play, they return to being strangers. Four characters who don't know each other in the beginning, who won't know each other by the end; the 'shock of passion' and the anonymity of the release. This is a playwright jettisoning permanence in favour of volatility. Like life, isn't it?
This is why people still go to the theatre. Good drama has the power to reject the reductive and embrace complexity. Marber explains that
in the theatre we have time to think and time to feel. It requires our attention and concentration. It's a place where you can meditate and, if you want, drop off, but that's part of its pleasure in this day and age. You know that for over an hour you're going to have to sit still and watch and feel, with no distractions. The theatre has always been a sacred place.
This sanctity is what the playwright yearns for. 'When the lights go down in the auditorium, and the lights go up on the stage, and you can feel an audience's collective innocence – that they don't know what's going to happen, and they're all going to share in this period of time together'. As Marber speaks, I imagine him not at his writing desk, nor in rehearsals, but in the stalls. A force of contemporary British theatre who has come to enjoy the show. 'Here we are all sharing in this thing, once, and in the flesh, and we cannot share it again. It's beautiful’.
When he emerges from this thought, I ask him to describe his style as a dramatist. 'Well. There, you see, is the blind spot. We can't look at ourselves'. He doesn't seem keen on the subject. I press him, referring back to his earlier work as a comedian. He was a writer and cast member on The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge. Until now, his plays have often been regarded as comedies – Closer won 'Best Comedy' at the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards. 'I'm fundamentally a comic writer, so yes, over the years I've been drawn to a genre of theatre best described as serious comedy'. He mentions his 2018 adaptation of Harold Pinter's short Victoria Station (1982), 'a really funny play until it isn't', and then tails off. At this mention of cross-literary genres, another hat appears in our conversation. This time it's James Joyce's, from a scene in Travesties where a fictionalised Joyce produces a rabbit out of his hat, puts the hat back on, and leaves. Travesties is always reviewed as a comedy, 'but it is also about artistic debate'. Marber remembers talking in rehearsals 'about how to teach people the importance of Joyce, the enormity of Joyce'. The play's characters may sing and dance, riddle and limerick, remember and disremember, but they always return to the 'duty of their art'. Lenin: to radicalize. Tzara: to ridicule. Joyce: to reach for eternity ('An artist is the magician put among men to gratify their urge for immortality'). Stoppard's heart is with Joyce here, Marber tells me. As is his.
He recalls seeing a revival of Closer at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015. 'I couldn't decide whether it felt modern or archaic. I think a bit of both. Some of the feelings in it are eternal and some of it is specific'. This comment echoes Joyce's speech in Travesties, in which he boldly declares that 'if there's any meaning in any of it, it is what survives in art'. Marber agrees: ‘I think that's something Tom and I talk a lot about. We both abide by the unfashionable principle of art for art's sake. Artistic freedom, the liberty to work on what you want, to no brief’.
At the moment for Marber, that's directing. Is a return to writing next? ‘I'm always writing, and I spent Christmas writing something when I wasn't rehearsing. I'm always doing both jobs, and I've found that suits me quite well’. As in Godot, the changing of hats, the assuming of different roles and the appropriation of another's things, marks no essential change in one's existence. Patrick Marber, as his Twitter bio tells us, has always been a writer slash director and a director slash writer. Hats masterfully balanced, all at the same time.
Leopoldstadt is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 30th October.