Rezo Gabriadze’s Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem takes place on a table about six feet wide and three deep. It is an ideal size for a mammoth subject – not only the five-month battle that reduced Stalin’s model city on the Volga to rubble and ended millions of lives but, more largely, human vulnerability.
The 74-year-old Georgian playwright, director and puppetmaker depicts the relentless fighting with typical poetic economy. His five puppeteers in black stand shoulder-to-shoulder to slide metal sheets arrayed with rows of tiny helmets along the table to the beat of a spirited Soviet martial tune; when a battalion reaches the table edge, the puppeteer returns it to the back of the line, as if soldiers could be recycled and still there would not be enough of them to fill the maw of war. There never were enough for Stalin, the puppet drama suggests.
More than depicting battle, though, Stalingrad offers glimpses of the people – soldier and civilian – about to die. We meet a Berlin artist, an Odessa gunner, a Kiev handyman, a “transport specialist” (in official Soviet parlance, a horse) and a people’s artist of the Bashkyr Autonomous Republic (a circus horse) moments before the life gets knocked out of them.
We know these creatures – their place in society and their character – by the stuff Gabriadze has made them of and by their size. The diminutive horses have ivory bones for legs – they are starved “to the bone”. The mane of the drudge Aliosha consists of scratchy twine; his show-horse lover Natasha, whose neck undulates expressively, is graced with lace. The Berlin artist, in red velvet dressing gown though he can’t afford a cup of coffee, stands as tall as the German general – to make room for his ego, perhaps.
Paper, wire, clay, twigs: Gabriadze fashions his finely detailed creatures from detritus, and when they die they disappear into the fine silt covering the stage: dust to dust. Without an animating spirit, we do not amount to much.
But that spirit counts for a lot. Though Gabriadze tells a grim tale of power abused, the actions of his puppeteers tell a different story. Lighting a cigarette for one puppet, carrying a cup of tea to the lips of another, they handle their delicate, doomed charges with great tenderness.