The Last Days of Mankind

Nov 12 2018 | By More

★★★★☆     A glorious mess

Leith Theatre: Sat 10 – Fri 16 Nov2018
Review by 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.

Micha Grunert and Thomas Behrend of Theaterlabor, Germany. Pic Chris Scott.

Kraus’s 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.

Bertolt Brecht-meets-Barry Humphries

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.

Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies with Danielle Farrow, Alina Tinnefeld and Sophia McLean. Pic Chris Scott

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.

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 problems 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, (Ukraine) Freya Maria Muller (Germany), James Hughes (Scotland), Danielle Farrow, (Scotland) Peter Palfi (Scotland) Anton Romanov, (Serbia), Emma Lynne Harley (Scotland)

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:

Patrick Healy’s translation of the full text is available to buy from Amazon. Click for details:


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