Beethoven in Stalingrad – review, Edinburgh Fringe 2015

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

DSC_0042-6-2Beethoven in Stalingrad
directed by Jesper Arin
and featuring Ian Preston (violin)
Spotlites
16 – 31 August

 

 

 

 

If only prizes (or in this case, stars) could be awarded for good ideas. This has a lot to interest and intrigue: “Christmas 1942, as twelve soldiers tell their stories, one man begins to play Beethoven in Stalingrad.” Add an eye-catching poster, good venue (Spotlites on Hanover Street) and a sold out sign at the door and so far, all very promising.

In a small, downstairs room seating about 35 (practically on each other’s laps), director and actor Jesper Arin lights a candle and quotes from the Gospel of Luke. Apart from this Bible reading, the subsequent text is taken from the last letters home written by soldiers of the ill-fated German 6th Army entrenched in Stalingrad before they were surrounded and then surrendered to the Russians.

Throughout the performance, violinist Ian Preston uses fragments of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32, giving the stories an eerie and plaintive soundtrack.

An audience has to work pretty hard to get the most out of this piece. It has only just opened so what appeared to be a technical issue with the lighting at the start hopefully won’t continue. However, with minimal time, lighting and costume changes to help establish each individual soldier’s story it is often hard to follow.

The explanatory programme issued at the start is helpful but there are limited opportunities to read this beforehand. Perhaps a few more props, changes to the lighting and more use of the box on stage could make a big difference as more is needed to help develop atmosphere.

Beethoven’s music is one of the selling points of this show and whilst the approach of using electronically simulated sound is interesting, it detracted from place and context.

On a small stage, Arin draws us into the horrifying testimonies of men caught up in one of the bloodiest battles of World War 2. A musician directly behind him in jeans and t-shirt ‘playing’ sound through assorted gadgetry is a distraction; it may help if Preston is less well-lit or slightly off stage.

The letters are poignant, particularly when the programme reveals they never reached their recipients and the minister of propaganda at the time ordered the letters be hidden from the public as their lack of positivity was ‘a disappointment’.

It is a pity a lot of this emotion and drama is lost during the performance. We know war is a terrible thing, affecting all humanity whatever your allegiance. As a piece of storytelling with music, opportunities are lost in consistently conveying each soldier’s hopes and fears.

Unfortunately, talented individuals and a great idea are let down by execution and some audience members felt a little short changed – this 45 minute show finished ten minutes earlier than advertised.

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