It could be said that Faye Castelow getting cast in Tom Stoppard’s play, Leopoldstadt was kismet. “When I saw the announcement that Tom had written this play that was an epic saga loosely based on his life and Patrick Marber was directing, I was extremely curious,” says the actress.
Castelow asked her agent if she could get some detail about the play. “But I learned that they had already called to find out if I was available,” she says. “Rarely do I have an instinct about a job. When you’re an actor, you are so used to going up for things and not getting them.”
Taking place from 1899 to 1955, Leopoldstadt follows the Merzes and Jakoboviczes, a wealthy and prominent Jewish family who live in Vienna. For most of the play the family lives a seemingly charmed life, filled with dancing, philosophizing and ties to cultural heavyweights like Freud, Gustav Klimt, Brahms and Arthur Schnitzler. But we know how fleeting it all is. No matter how assimilated they are, it will all be decimated with the holocaust.
Castelow was cast as the luminous Gretl. Born christian, Gretl is the wife of Hermann, a prominent textile manufacturer. Painted by celebrated artist Gustav Klimt her portrait will have a key position on the Merzes’ wall in from their opulent living room. Until, like everything else, it is stolen from the family.
“Gretel is the ultimate hedonist. She is always in pursuit of joy and pleasure and so dynamic,” says Castelow who is one of four actors from the original British company to join the Broadway cast. Called a “masterpiece” and “breathtakingly brilliant” Leopoldstadt won the Olivier Award for Best New Play and is currently playing at the Longacre Theatre. As much as the piece is epic and sweeping, it has such an intimacy it feels as if we are inside the family’s living room. Even with the massive cast of 38 actors Stoppard has brought us into this world with specificity, humor and love.
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Faye Castelow shared more.
Jeryl Brunner: How would you describe Gretl?
Faye Castelow: Gretl is Catholic and from a very aristocratic family. She secures an extremely high place in society. But in choosing to marry Hermann, who has converted to Catholicism, she has chosen to stray from that path. I’m sure she faced some resistance from her family and her circle when she chose to marry him.
But Gretl isn’t judgmental and she doesn’t bring prejudices with her. She brings with her curiosity and intent to find joy and to learn things about life. She is enraptured over all the things that come her way, whether it’s going to Paris or having a family home full of nephews and nieces for a Christmas lunch. For her it’s about being around love and joy.
Brunner: How did you prepare to play her?
Castelow: I started piecing together this jigsaw of who I think she is and who other people think she is. And then I did my own research around what a woman like Gretl would have been doing with her time. She has great freedom because she has wealth. But she is still a woman in 1899 and belongs to her family.
She is in a world that is the patriarchy. Gretl is curtailed in a way that we cannot really imagine today. She has very limited choices and options available to her. So I started to build together a world and used the rehearsal to keep layering and adding. And everybody else brought all of their work that they did. So we started to weave together this big fabric of the family and build the family tree.
Brunner: What is it it like to play Gretl after having done the role in London?
Castelow: This is now that my third opportunity playing Gretl. We first did the show in London. Then Covid-19 came and we had a huge gap and we reopened there last summer. It’s funny because as an actor you dream of being able to play a part again. I am haunted by the parts that I wish I could go back to and have another shot at.
I don’t know that I’ve made any huge choices to change what I’m doing. But it has just crystallized. Gretl has become so much a part of me. There are no more nerves about what I am doing physically. Now I can really just explore. Our producers Sonia [Friedman] and Roy [Furman] and also Tom and Patrick, all said how different they feel she is here. They have all seen me play Gretl from the beginning. They experience that on the outside. I don’t know that I tangibly feel that inside. I have been liberated by the great privilege of having her live with me for so long that now I can just play. I feel very free.
Brunner: Why is it important to tell this story now?
Castelow: Unfortunately, we still live in a world where people are persecuted, oppressed and othered. And that othering creates fear and division. That perpetuates cycles that snowball and become something totally out of control. This is a story that we can never, ever forget.
Antisemitism is still something that we’re, unbelievably, having to negotiate every day. People are still being persecuted in Eastern Europe and fleeing. This is a story that we need to keep telling because it’s happening all the time. The more we tell stories, the more we understand. The more we listen the more we create space and understanding for each other. That will make the world richer.
Brunner: What do you hope people take away from seeing Leopoldstadt?
Castelow: I hope that people come away with an openness—that the story encourages them to think a little bit about the plight of others. Whether it’s a story they know well or is not close to their own experience, I hope it is simple enough that it touches everybody. That it teaches them to have kindness and an instinct to listen a little bit more to people around them, particularly people who they believe might be different from them. It doesn’t take very much for us to discover that we are all exactly the same. We all need love and want the best for our family. We all need safety and somewhere to live and grow. That is universal.