Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind is famously said to be “unstagebale”, so kudos to all involved in this production for actually getting the show onstage. It’s a rambling, unwieldy thing, even in John Retallack and Toby Hulse’s new adaptation, written especially for the 26-strong graduating class of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Retallack and Hulse, who also co-direct, have wrestled Kraus’s 800-page epic down to two-and-a-half hours and from 500 characters to around 30. This is no mean feat, but as a piece of theatre it doesn’t always work.
The most affecting moments, for me, are when life in Vienna is contrasted directly with life at the Front: mothers complaining that their sons are too young to fight “for the glory of Austria” as young men are gunned down behind them, a General demanding cream on his cake as his Lieutenants beg to be allowed to retreat. These vignettes are thoughtfully done and make their point well, although they become repetitious quickly. The piece does not deal in subtleties: we see people shot onstage repeatedly, the capitulation and manipulation of the press is explicit, and the idea that this blindly patriotic Austria gives birth to Hitler’s ideas is treated unpleasantly literally.
Some of the acting is very mannered, but again, the fault lies with the play not the cast; the piece lacks narrative drive or plot, making it difficult for the cast to portray anything subtler than archetypes. Lindsay Dukes is chilling as the Military Nurse who is prepared to shoot prisoners herself rather than care for them, Adam Collier and Danielle Winter are excellent as the children of the piece, Alex Fellows-Bennett is suitably callous as the General and Darren Seed is wonderful as the silent Simple Soldier, but the whole piece feels as though it is peopled by representations of a type rather than characters. Kraus’s play gives us a huge range of people and situations, but they flash past so quickly that they are perhaps not as hard-hitting as they could be. Using Kraus as a character (Christopher McKay) is a neat device of Retallack and Hulse’s, allowing him to commentate on events as they unfold – and to foreshadow the deep sense of injustice and incompetence which drove him to collect newspapers and to write the play.
Visually, though, the piece is a triumph. Co-designed by Georgia De Grey and Katie Sykes, the set is stunning and is used to great effect. It transforms from newspaper offices to the streets of Vienna to the trenches effortlessly, enhanced by Tim Streader’s lighting. The ensemble work from the cast is superb, especially the physical work and cleverly-choreographed dances, and the energy coming off the stage is tangible.
Without being flippant, we know that the First World War was an atrocious period in our history, with a mind-boggling loss of life. Kraus’s play, made up of newspaper coverage and verbatim reportage, struggles to make sense of the senseless slaughter. Parts of the production are deeply moving, others genuinely funny. Retallack and Hulse have done an impressive job to get this beast of a play onstage, and the BOVTS students give it their all. Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to see how the play, in and of itself, could work as a piece of theatre. It’s both rambling and repetitious, despite the cuts, and takes a very long time to say not very much. A brave production and a bold experiment for which both BOV and BOVTS should be commended, performed by a talented cast – but it seems unfortunately true that the play is unstageable in way that’s consistently compelling.
The Last Days of Mankind is at Bristol Old Vic until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic’s website.
Photo (c) Graham Burke.