The Last Days of Mankind, by the Austrian journalist and satirist Karl Kraus, is a neglected classic of modern European theatre. Written throughout and immediately after the First World War, this extraordinary five-act play is an inventive and impassioned response to the slaughter.
Leith Theatre in Edinburgh, an early 20th-century playhouse which has been reopened in a condition of some dilapidation, was a fitting venue for the world premiere of this new production of the play. Cavernous and decidedly austere, the auditorium is absolutely accommodating to the requirements of the jagged, modernist aesthetics of Mitteleuropa in the aftermath of the “Great War”.
Co-produced by the Leith Theatre company and Theatrelabor of Germany, this staging involves artists from no fewer than eight countries, including Poland, Serbia, Ukraine, France and Ireland. Perhaps the most well known company involved in the project is the English cabaret group The Tiger Lillies, who perform an entire suite of new songs written specially for the show.
About a third of Kraus’s text (which has been given a sharp, agile new translation by Patrick Healy) is comprised of documentary material from politicians’ speeches, newspaper editorials and the like. “The most improbable deeds reported here really took place,” he wrote, “the most gruesome inventions are quotations.”
The element of public record in the play has led to Kraus being hailed as the father of documentary theatre. However, his drama is a long way from the well-intentioned, somewhat dry documentary and verbatim dramas that are often seen on British stages today. His play is appropriately fragmented in its structure and profoundly theatrical in its aesthetics.
Co-directors John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson understand this perfectly, fashioning a production that reverberates with the avant-garde techniques of early and mid-20th century modernism, such as Dadaism and the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. The integration into the performance of a relentless, brilliantly varied series of still and moving projected images is a compelling masterstroke, in both emotional and political terms.
The most stunning element in the piece is the music and performance of The Tiger Lillies. The play lends itself beautifully to the group’s barbed, sardonic musical style (which harks back splendidly to the cabaret of Weimar Germany), and the English trio oblige with a superb series of songs which evoke powerfully the cynicism, horror and pathos of the imperialist bloodbath.
The Tiger Lillies’ frontman and lyricist Martyn Jacques is the darkly pounding heart of the production. In his trademark bowler hat and painted face, singing in his extraordinary falsetto voice, he connects the play’s deliberately disjointed, discomfiting scenes with the unnerving certainty of a Weimar cabaret master of ceremonies.
This production, like the play itself, is an imperfect epic. At times, one might wish that the acting was stronger or the movement more accomplished.
Nevertheless, by the time this three-and-a-half-hour performance reaches its stunning, emotionally devastating conclusion, there is no doubt that this is a major work of theatre which demands to be re-staged across Europe and throughout the world.