‘Theatres of War’ sheds light on the lost battle of World War II

Theatres of War author Richard Hall

Theatres of War author Richard Hall - Credit: Archant

The Battle of Monte Cassino is often referred to as the “forgotten campaign”. Long and bloody, this series of four battles in 1944 saw the Allies emerge victorious – but so high was its cost that few have chosen to recall it since.

There was, however, a brief light in this dark period of Italian history. Just some 50 miles away, Naples’ abandoned San Carlo Theatre – damaged by Second World War air raids – was discovered by the Allied forces and reopened during the last years of the war. Staging operas and productions to entertain passing soldiers, it provided a glimmer of entertainment and freedom amid the bloodshed.

On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, a Hampstead Garden Suburb writer is now telling its story.

“I couldn’t get my head around it,” says Richard Hall, author of Theatres of War. “The dichotomy of this appalling battle and the nearby reopening of an opera house – it really got to me.”

Hall had previously spent spells in Italy. As a seven-year-old, he stayed in Naples for a month and later returned to work for two years in Milan. However, it was only when he retired as an accountant six years ago and began renovating a property in Umbria with his wife that he learnt about the country’s brutal history.

“In the course of the restoration, we talked to a lot of people and they told stories of soldiers coming over the hill and through the town.

“It was quite a shock to discover that these beautiful hillsides and olive groves were, in recent history, tragic battle fields, so I started to read up on the campaign.”

Most Read

During this time, Hall discovered the story of the San Carlo Theatre and it formed the basis of Theatres of War. Much like the famous story of World War One’s Christmas truce – in which both sides stopped for one day to play a game of football – he says it is a tale of hope, of a “phoenix rising from the ashes”.

The novel tells of two soldiers facing the German bombardment during the landing at the beaches of Salerno. One is Edmund – a cricketer from a landed family – who is followed to Naples by his love-struck partner Vermillion.

When the second soldier, Frank, stumbles upon the San Carlo Theatre, he is asked to produce a series of shows and Vermillion agrees to help. What follows is not just a human love story, but also a musical one.

Having previously served as finance director of the Royal Opera House, Hall has a long-standing love of the music – stretching back to when Puccini’s La Bohème reduced him to tears as a 12-year-old.

It is that love, mixed with a desire to tell an untouched chapter of the Second World War, which has led to Theatres of War being voted into the finals of The People’s Book Prize.

Forgotten history

“On one level, I felt almost embarrassed to write about a war I didn’t experience,” he says. “But although a lot of people have written about it, there’s much less said about the Italian campaign, so maybe I can bring something that hasn’t been said before.

“Considering how many people love Italy, few actually know of the ‘forgotten campaign’, but it’s important we do to fully appreciate these lands as a country.”

Theatres of War by R.J.J. Hall is published by Matador priced £9.99. An eBook version is available on amazon.com for £1.99.