The Last Days of Mankind by Austrian playwright and journalist Karl Kraus has been deemed ‘unstageable.’ Using found texts from newspapers, political speeches and overheard conversation, it chronicles the First World War from a Viennese perspective.
Directors John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson, of Germany’s Theaterlabor, have pared Patrick Healy’s new translation down from 200 scenes to 20 and added new songs by Martyn Jacques and the Tiger Lillies to create a cabaret-style performance within the decayed auditorium of Leith Theatre featuring a cast of 30 from Scotland and across Europe.
McGroarty and Anderson hone in on Kraus’ concern with propaganda during times of war. Three female performers are used to play the journalist Alice Schalek, whose sensationalist reports of her journeys to the front line distorted the truth of the conflict. Kraus is present in the play too, portrayed by both Michael Daviot and Micha Grunert (the two performers representing his own conflicting attitudes). He points up the contrasting effects of the war on champagne swilling ruling class and the rest of society, the women, children and working me who were starving and slaving for the war effort.
The second act features an increasingly physical interpretation of the text, bringing in more of the European collaborators as the war’s horrors become so obscene that words cease to be adequate to depict them.
This is suitably hard to watch, with Mark Holthusen’s projections filling the whole wall surrounding the proscenium arch and not flinching from using photographs of death, hanging and starvation as Jacques delivers his ironic and devastatingly bitter new songs with an insouciant sneer from the piano.
Opening on the centenary of the First World War Armistice amplifies the piece’s resonance.