As I take my seat at the Leith Theatre for The Last Days Of Mankind I notice the woman at the adjoining table has her phone out, texting. How disrespectful I think, this is an anti-war play. It was written a century ago! And today is Remembrance Sunday, the actual 100th Anniversary of the Armistice, for goodness sake! But I say nothing. I decide to take the high ground and concentrate extra hard on the work of art that is about to unfold. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with this production.
Because everything about TLDOM is so bloody worthy. I sensed that the audience had decided to love it regardless of how pretentious and overwrought it might get (myself included). Not because of a unified desire amongst the audience to commemorate those who suffered in the Great War, or our shared love of Expressionist theatre. Or even to support this underfunded community theatre and its staff of volunteers. Nah, we were all there for The Tiger Lillies. But I’ll come back to them…
Author Karl Kraus intended this play to run for fifteen hours. This version has been abridged to a still-challenging three and a half hours, and now runs like a succession of sketches, with multiple characters and narratives. Kraus’ approach was to compile the text exclusively from contemporary quotes by politicians, soldiers, journalists and civilians, revealing the evolving corruption, violence and, ultimately, futility of war. It’s an important work but, despite the editing, it almost collapses under its own weight.
This production is a collaboration between several international theatre groups, co-directed by a Scot, John Paul McGroarty, and a German, Yuri Birte Anderson. The performers are committed and brave (and mostly performing in their second language) but the eccentric staging and performances, and the diverse accents, make everything very difficult to follow. The play is full of bright ideas and beautiful moments: starving civilians watch a rich couple gorging themselves on a meal of bullets; naked actors are wrapped in black cellophane to indicate lost limbs; a priest is sexually aroused by firing a rifle, which he then blesses… But these moments are then extended waaaaay too long.
The production is saved by The Tiger Lillies, a trio of multi-instrumentalists who have been ploughing a Brechtian furrow through the seedy nightclubs of Europe for thirty years. Their leader, Martin Jacques, has written a clutch of original songs that brilliantly link Kraus’ sketches and apply a contemporary commentary to the text. His extraordinary voice takes on many forms: a pompous officer explaining that “there is no greater honour than to starve for your country”, a bureaucrat berating a destitute women for being a “Syphillitic Slut” and a haunted soldier describing the war dead as “Martyrs To Love”.
The band are exceptional. Evidentally drafted into the production late in the day, they provide some desperately needed continuity, humour and soul, to the production. It works – their music is the glue that holds the disparate parts together, and gives it a dark wit and singular personality that the rest lacks. But when the music stopped the play slipped back into self-indulgence. I’m a huge fan of The Tiger Lillies but even I was struggling not to fidget through the second half. Perhaps my neighbour had the right idea – four hours after the play started, she was playing Candy Crush, and I was jealous of her battery life.
The Last Days of Mankind runs at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, until Friday 16th November.