Bridewell Theatre, London EC4
Opened 31 July, 1997

Early in 1943 the remnants of the German Sixth Army, facing wipe-out at Stalingrad and forbidden to withdraw or surrender, were ordered to write their final letters home. The letters were never delivered; after a failed attempt to use them in a propaganda book, they were destroyed. However, the book's author made copies of those missives in which he found what would now be called "human interest". These are the letters which Matthew Mills has translated and adapted for Clarion Theatre Company's Last Letters From Stalingrad at the Bridewell.

It seems a magnificent idea for a pity-of-war play, but for some reason it does not come off. Possibly a fringe theatre at the close, clammy height of a London summer is not the best environment in which to summon up the ravages of the worst Russian winter for 250 years, but this should not matter. Mills, director Chattie Salaman and the cast of four men and two women do their best to open up the action: soldiers' recitations of their letters are interrupted by taped artillery fire which leads them to scramble for cover; messages are alternately read by their writers and their recipients, as the bleakness of existence at the front is intercut with relatively everyday scenes from the homeland. At one point the men act out an account of a grand piano being discovered in a ruined house and dragged on to the street, where a soldier plays the Appassionata upon it.

The company sense the human tragedy in these letters, but do not communicate it to us. Their acting is a matter of efficiency and workmanship rather than empathy. At one or two points the use of taped material undermines the goings-on onstage: the final poignant farewell, of a young officer in his letter to his higher-ranking father, is delivered in untranslated German, but its tone of official leave-taking masking despair is swiftly destroyed by a portentous closing voice-over. Such moments aside, all the ingredients of a powerful piece are present, but over these 70 minutes they fail to gel. One is left with a desire to read the source material in order to encounter its intensity directly rather than settle for this unaccountably unsatisfying presentation of it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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