The Last Days of Mankind

Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies, with character Alice Schalek in the background
(Three actors playing single role together)
Photo: Chris Scott

Armistice Day of 2018 saw the world premiere of a major adaptation of Karl Kraus’ ‘unperformable’ play The Last Days of Mankind, featuring the Olivier-winning The Tiger Lillies. John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson directed this powerful satire about WWI, much of which was written in Viennese cafes at the time of the conflict.

At Leith Theatre, I joined casts from seven different countries which had been on different sides of the First World War. Now – 100 years later – artists from these allied and opposed lands united to work on creating an immense piece of theatre about the horrors of that war using Kraus’ words, dark humour and song.

Fine guests act out atrocities of war – I chose to be hanged!
(Actors from various different countries collaborating on one scene)
Photo: Douglas Robertson

This was truly epic theatre, as borne out by reviews (four and five stars) and reactions, some of which you can read here. People returned a number of times to see it, at least one audience member letting me know they had come up from England twice!

This was all wonderful acclamation for the companies involved in the project, which were Leith Theatre (Scotland), Theaterlabor (Germany), Teatr A Part (Poland), Plavo Pozoriste (Serbia), Association Arsène (France), Smashing Times (Ireland) and Kultura Medialna (Ukraine). England, Austria and Hungary were also represented by actors involved.

We all played a number of roles, but my main one was that of Alice Schalek, the only female war correspondent with the Austro-Hungarian War Press Office. There were three of us, always appearing together, who played this role – just one of the exciting approaches to the play which arose from the work of the different companies and styles brought together.

The three Schaleks (L to R: Danielle Farrow, Alina Tinnefeld, Sophia McLean)
with just one of the incredible backdrop projections of visual designer Mark Holthusen
Photo: Douglas Robertson

I also had lines at the very end of this production’s script, spoken by one simply known as ‘Mother’. While lines from a show normally leave my head once I’ve left the production, on this occasion those last words stayed with me – a haunting testimony to their strength and the honour I felt in saying them.

Never, through all the days that you disgrace, will you avert your eyes from this dead face!

And may, when you have ended your descent to hell, this image greet you there as well.

May the splinters of this little one’s skull penetrate your brain and soul!

Long may you live and may you be terrorised through all your nights by this mother’s cries!

The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus, translated by Patrick Healy

A powerful anti-war play, indeed.

Mother has cursed
Cast from seven different theatre companies gathered to end the play with a haunting song
Photo: Douglas Robertson

A few responses to the production…

“spectacular… a series of stunning images to illustrate the text… a mighty theatrical feat” The Herald – Neil Cooper

“a thrilling sense of occasion and momentum… a biting, superbly-performed score… huge, brilliantly-blended visual images of the war” The Scotsman – Joyce McMillan

“a musical and artistic triumph… Hard hitting and impactful… several scenes brought a lump to the throat and the last 20 minutes of the play are worth the ticket price alone” Commonspace – Professor John Davis

“powerful anti-war play… stroke of genius… superb cast… highly relevant” Edinburgh Guide – Irene Brown

More reviews, images + responses here, including comments of:
“astounding” “brilliant” “passionate” “amazing” “stunning” “incredible” “fantastic” “moving” “epic”

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