Event review: Beethoven in Stalingrad at the Spread Eagle pub theatre, Friday 1st April

By - Tuesday 12th April, 2016

Rather than being transported to the battlefield, Charles Barber is left a little too conscious of sitting in a comfortable theatre

Photo by Spreadeagle pub theatre, used with permission.

A part of me wondered why I’d chosen to go and see a play with the title ‘Beethoven in Stalingrad’ after I’d already read Antony Beevor’s brilliant book about one of the second World War’s most devastating battles. At the end of the book, as horrific fact was piled on horrific fact, particularly relating to the death count of the vanquished German soldiers, I was only able to bear reading a small section at a time, and in between had to read something far more light and humorous. Yet I was intrigued by the title of this play and thought that the transcripts of German soldiers on which this one-man-and-a-musician play is based might provide a different insight from the more general narrative of a professional historian.

The play certainly did this, yet in a way I found it almost as frustrating as it was illuminating. I was right in not expecting too many laughs that night at the Spreadeagle pub theatre in central Croydon, yet for me it was not quite the gruelling experience that I had suspected it would be. I think that this was not due to the letters themselves, which were both touching and tragic, but to the way that they were presented.

The play started with the actor Jesper Arin narrating the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, before moving on to what was presumably one of the letters, giving an account of a number of German soldiers sharing a Christmas meal during the battle for Stalingrad. The letter seemed to be from a priest or devout Christian and related how they agreed that if any of them survived they would find the relatives of those that did not, and tell them about this last Christmas supper. He then went on to pretend to read letters of those same soldiers written during the long course of this battle. He did this with skill, fitting the right tone  to the character of the writer and the content of the letter, yet because they were all in one voice, their individual personalities did not stand out as much as I wished: a limitation of a one-man show. I was also disappointed that we were not even told the name of the letter writer: it felt to some extent that private letters were being used for artistic ends without paying full tribute to those who provided the material.

He shot the man to put him out of his misery

The letters themselves were often heart-rending and haunting. In particular, I remember one in which the soldier is upset with his wife or girlfriend, who suggests in her letter that they should just surrender. He clearly doesn’t have the power to make this happen and doesn’t have any hope that his life will be spared if the German army does so. He sees clearly his tragic ending as the fulfilment of a process that started back in 1932 when too many German people put a cross against the National Socialist Party. Since then, the German people have been set on this destructive path, which for him and his fellow soldiers is certain to end in death far from home.

Perhaps the most heart-rending and horrific letter is one relating the terrible story of how a soldier, having blown up an enemy tank, found one of its crew still alive but terribly burned and in agony. He shot him in the head to put him out of his misery, but cannot get this enemy soldier out of his head and cries about him every night when he goes to bed. He is perhaps not just crying over him, but also for the soldiers he might kill in the morning when he and his colleagues get back to business.

In another letter a soldier complains to his father, who may be a general, about his failure to get his son out of serving in this terrible war, and in another a man certain that he is going to die tells his wife to find another father for their two young children, but asks her to let them know that their first father died bravely.

I couldn’t help thinking how few would have had even this sliver of hope

The last letter though tells of how a Russian family, whose home has been destroyed, have still managed to rescue their piano. They are somehow able to play Beethoven on the street in the middle of the battle of Stalingrad, which for the writer brings an absurd moment of hope and beauty amongst all the horror. Yet knowing how the tiny number of German soldiers who did survive this awful battle, a part of me couldn’t help thinking how few would have had even this thin slither of hope.

We never did hear whether any of the nameless soldiers at the Christmas meal made it back to Germany and were almost left to assume that none of them did. Although the occasional violin accompaniment by Ian Peasten and the lament at the end did add an eerie atmosphere, in some ways it made us all too aware that we ourselves were in a comfortable theatre and not on the battlefield. I think that I would have preferred the sound of gunfire and shelling.

In many ways the performance was a valiant attempt to bring to life some of the individuals destroyed in the battle of Stalingrad, and a timely reminder of how awful war almost always is for those at the front end. However, a little more historical context and a clearer delineation of the men whose letters were used would have made it an even more tragic and illuminating play.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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