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Theatre Review Timely satire on lessons unlearned from ‘war to end all wars’

The Last Days of Mankind
Leith Theatre, Edinburgh

CONCEIVED for a theatre on Mars, a full performance of The Last Days of Mankind would stretch over 10 days measured in earthly time. Audiences could not bear it, said Karl Kraus of his searing jeremiad inveighing against the madness and futility of war, written in the immediate aftermath of WWI.

Fronted by the Tiger Lillies, whose trademark cadaverous make-up is a perfect fit, an ensemble cast from across Europe plays out the tragedy as macabre vaudeville in the salubrious environs of a bourgeois Viennese cafe.

Between the pitch-perfect songs inciting the audience throughout to die, starve and slave for their country, performed with delicious impishness by Martyn Jacques, the cast effortlessly conjure the jingoistic fervour escalating from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Kraus's original text, much of it culled from newspapers and reported speech of the time, is slathered in seething irony that is nimbly translated to the stage with the deranged yet tightly choreographed physical performances. With their jerky, mechanical movements to Jonas Golland's skittering percussion, this blighted humanity flicker uncannily between malfunctioning automatons and stiffening corpses.

But, as the play proceeds, any pretence of naturalism dissolves. Unlike most of the spectacles commemorating armistice around the country, there is very much an awareness of the ultimate inadequacy of doing justice to this mass mechanised slaughter. The chasm between the rhetoric of the newspapers and the reality of the war yawns ever wider and the strategies of representation become increasingly absurd and surreal.

The second half effervesces with theatrical inventiveness with varying degrees of success, climaxing with the incandescent yet poignant monologue of the Grumbler, speaking on behalf of Kraus. “Time washes away the essence of events and would grant amnesty even to the most heinous crimes ever committed under the stars; but I have preserved this essence.” As does this marvellous production.

While this unstageable play is inevitably a failure on its own terms, more fundamentally it sheds light on humanity's failure to learn from the horrific tragedy of WWI in the century since its end.

Runs until November 16, box office: brownpapertickets.com.

 

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