Stalingrad stands as one of the most destructive and horrific battles of the 20th century. A scourge of blood and death on an unimaginable scale that defined the brutality of the eastern front of the Second World War. To say it might be a heavy and difficult subject to tackle for a festival slot would therefore be an understatement. Yet despite this pressure, violinist, Ian Peatson, and actor, Jesper Arin, return with their part-music, part-verbatim, part-drama
Beethoven at Stalingrad remains an occasionally moving and, at least, incredibly interesting piece of art that you could do worse than see at the festival.
The play, if it is indeed appropriate to label this as a play to begin with, lacks a real narrative, instead being more a collection of monologues or dramatic performances of 12 real letters sent by German soldiers to their loved ones around Christmas Day of 1942. All of this accompanied by Peatson who performs a sort of violin meets electronica deconstruction of Beethoven's Appassionata.
The show itself is a collection of related moments rather than a fully fledged story, and that is both its greatest strength and weakness.
The almost anthology nature of the piece, means the impact of the individual performances of the letters vary, with some being incredibly powerful and moving whilst others fizzle out or are simply too short to really make an impact. In addition to this, the music itself feels rather under utilised, mostly being in the background to add some light atmosphere to the performances. This however made it seem superfluous to the piece at large and for most of the performance I frequently forgot it was there, which in a show that very explicitly draws attention to its musical underpinnings in the title is a problem.
Despite these issues the show does have done truly remarkable moments, Arin does a wonderful job in bringing the letters to life, and even if he does occasionally struggle to differentiate fully between his characters, he imbues them with a true sense of humanity and brings out the wonderful nuances and subtexts in the letters that at the show’s best moments highlight the fear and love these poor men experienced in the hell they found themselves in.
Similarly, on the rare occasion the music is allowed to shine it creates scenes of true beauty, a particularly amazing example being the violin solo at the play’s climax that really highlights the true rapture and serendipity of Beethoven's work.
The show therefore is rather uneven, and certainly is a piece where individual parts are greater than the whole they create together. By the end the show fails to make the dramatic impact it is aiming for, which is a shame given how much talent is evident here. There is still much good to be found here and for anyone who is curious Beethoven at Stalingrad remains an occasionally moving and, at least, incredibly interesting piece of art that you could do worse than see at the festival.