‘A constant fascination to it all’: THE LAST DAYS OF MANKIND – Edinburgh ★★★★

In Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Scotland by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

Leith Theatre, Edinburgh – until 16 November 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson

The Last Days of Mankind, an international co-production at the reborn Leith Theatre, is an exasperating but ultimately worthwhile exploration of the horrors of the 1914-1918 war. Both resolutely adult and appealingly childish, it convinces and confounds almost equally.

While the thought-provoking, passionate and thoroughly necessary nature of much of the production certainly deserves a four-star rating, it has to be said that there are huge and obvious problems here.

Kraus’ original, famously written in Austria during and after World War One and detailing its horrors and hypocrisies, is always one of the most famous plays you have never actually seen, being self-confessedly unstageable in both length and scope.

Any attempt at staging it (such as Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald’s for the Citizens and the International Festival, which was a very different beast from this) has to content itself with showing a fraction of the hundreds of scenes and characters. This version, from Patrick Healy’s recent translation, is a similar pick-and-choose affair.

So there is no real reason for ending up with such an unwieldy adaptation as this, which clocks in at nearer to four hours than three. The structure, meanwhile, is utterly chaotic, with both halves appearing to end several times before they actually do, and some elements which try the patience.

The first act, dominated by expressionist physical and visual theatre looking like Otto Dix artworks come to life, has a momentum and power that largely sustains it. Directors John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson marshal a huge cast with panache and vigour. It is effectively soundtracked by The Tiger Lillies’ agreeably disagreeable cabaret songs, with their leader Martyn Jacques acting as a Bertolt Brecht-meets-Barry Humphries MC figure much of the time.

The second half, however, runs out of steam. Characters and situations recur when their points have already been made. There are scenes that seem designed to ape the Theatre of Cruelty but are more like the Theatre of Mild Annoyance, and even the musical numbers begin to outstay their welcome. The first few times performers appear from unexpected areas of the auditorium it is a novelty; constant repetition makes it less interesting.

Moreover, this creates problems of audibility, not always helped by delays in switching of microphones. There are still moments which pack a punch, thanks largely to Mark Holthusen’s visual design, but they are fewer and farther between.
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Despite all of this, however, there is a constant fascination to it all. The co-production between companies from Scotland, Germany, France, Serbia, Poland, Ukraine and Ireland (there are performers from all of these in the 30-strong cast) is making a political point simply by existing in the current climate. This, however, pales into insignificance compared to the evocation of the horrors and criminalities of the First World War – a conflict that is constantly being commemorated but apparently cannot be learned from.

The misuse of the nascent mass media a century ago, furthermore, has obvious parallels in the age of social media fake news.

teething problem

There are bound to be teething problem in Leith Theatre’s first professional stage production for thirty years, but the venue holds up pretty well, with its comparative dilapidation being a positive advantage in standing in for a war-ravaged Vienna cafe.

Kateriyna Ponomarenko, Freya Maria Muller, James Hughes, Danielle Farrow, Peter Palfi, Anton Romanov and Emma Lynne Harley. Pic: Chris Scott

The multi-national cast are uniformly impressive – bar the odd problem of understanding, largely due to the aforementioned sound issues. There is also the odd actor from closer to home, such as the impressive Emma Lynne Harley.

Michael Daviot, meanwhile, is a constant thread throughout the production as a representation of Kraus himself, and his closing monologue – displaying all of the sorrow, poise, grace and instinctive internationalist humanity feeling you would expect – does much to knit together a second half that has gone somewhat awry. The fact that it turns out not to be the closing monologue at all, and the production limps on further, is merely par for the course.

This is infuriating, inchoate and frankly far longer than it should be. However, the horror it invokes is down to the subject matter, which remains vital – and is treated both suitably seriously and with the utmost contempt. Despite its flagrant flaws, this is a production that deserves to be seen.

Running time: three hours 40 minutes (including one interval)
Leith Theatre, 28-30 Ferry Rd, EH6 4AE
Saturday 10 – Friday 16 November2018
Sat (preview), Tues – Fri at 7.30 pm, Sun at 6.30 pm
Tickets and details: https://www.leiththeatretrust.org/whats-on/thelastdaysofmankind.

ENDS

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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.
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Thom Dibdin on FacebookThom Dibdin on RssThom Dibdin on Twitter
Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.

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