John Paul McGroarty was 19 years old when he last saw a major stage production inside Leith Theatre, the former town hall building gifted to Leith following the Burgh’s incorporation into Edinburgh in 1920. After being used as a music venue and theatre space, the building lay empty for three decades before being recently opened up by both the Hidden Door festival and Edinburgh International Festival care of Leith Theatre Trust.
The play McGroarty saw was Russian director Yuri Lyubimov’s Taganka Theatre production of Alexander Pushkin’s play, Boris Godunov, which was programmed as part of the 1989 Edinburgh International Festival. Two years earlier when McGroarty was a teenage drama student in Ireland, the first play he saw was Frank McGuinness’ First World War drama, Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme.
Having been profoundly affected by these formative dramatic experiences, three decades on, the spirit of both look set to trickle down into McGroarty’s own staging of Austrian writer Karl Kraus’ First World War-set play, The Last Days of Mankind. Directed by McGroarty in co-production with physical theatre director Yuri Birte Anderson of Theaterlabor Germany, with whom McGroarty has been collaborating since 2014, the show opens at Leith Theatre this weekend on Armistice Day.
Written during the war and completed by Kraus in 1918, as the title suggests, The Last Days of Mankind charts the collapse of civilisation as we know it. This was written in a wild collage of docu-drama and expressionism that reflected the fractured society it was born from, and satirised the press, politicians, church and state, with a version of the play’s author at its centre.
“I’ve always been interested in conflict,” says McGroarty, who chanced upon Kraus’ play five years ago while at the forefront of trying to get Leith Theatre back as a working venue. “I became interested in this idea of how the First World War started many conflicts in central Europe.”
As the longest play ever written, with almost 500 characters, putting it on a stage at all is something of a battle. Kraus himself said his play was meant for a theatre on Mars, because “earthly theatre-goers could not stand it.” Kraus said as well that his play’s estimated ten-day running time would be “the tragedy of mankind…played out by figures in an operetta.”
With this in mind, some 35 scenes from the play’s original 200 or so will be performed by an international cast of more than 30. Actors will be drawn from theatre companies in Ireland, Poland, Serbia, France and Ukraine, who will work alongside professional actors from Edinburgh and Leith. McGroarty and Anderson’s production will be presented to an audience sitting at cabaret tables in a way that aims to conjure up the spirit of fin de siècle Vienna in Leith Theatre’s rough and ready environment.
Key to the production will be the presence of The Tiger Lillies, the avant-punk Brechtian cabaret trio led by Martyn Jacques, who has written a new set of songs for the show. Best known for their role in the junkyard opera rendering of Heinrich Hoffman’s Shockheaded Peter, The Tiger Lillies are stalwarts of the European alternative cabaret circuit, and were last in Edinburgh for a concert as part of the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival.
“There’s a lot of hate,” says Jacques of The Last Days of Mankind. “The play is about the process of how Vienna was turned into a fascist state after the war, and how every creep and every loser came to power because of the situation. There was total propaganda, and some of the songs look at how ordinary lives and relationships were destroyed by war.”
The Tiger Lillies previously recorded an album, A Dream Turns Sour, which set poems written during the First World War to music in the band’s inimitable fashion. Where that record was elegiac, Jacques songs for The Last Days of Mankind are more vitriolic.
“The words on A Dream Turns Sour were written by young men who knew they were going to die,” says Jacques, “but this is written by a 50-year-old cynic. That’s why there’s a song in it called Hymn of Hate, which is a response to a German Jew who wrote a poem about hating English people. It’s all reminiscent of what’s happening now with Brexit. The EU was founded to bring people together, and you’ve got people like Nigel Farage saying f*** the Germans and f*** the French and a couple of years later you have a war because all these countries hate each other.”
The last time a production of The Last Days of Mankind was seen in Scotland was in 1983, when the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow presented Robert David MacDonald’s translation of the play at Edinburgh International Festival. A typically audacious product of that period of the Citz, the show was revived in the Gorbals theatre a couple of years later and was adapted for radio.
While McGroarty was made aware of this version, his imagination was more fired by a translation by Irish writer Patrick Healey. According to both McGroarty and literary commentators in Ireland, Healey has given the play a rawer and more flamboyantly poetic rendering more in keeping with the tone of Kraus’ original script as well as this new production.
“Patrick is a total polymath,” according to McGroarty. “He’s a Joycean, and he’s got the language of it to a T. When it came out the Irish Times said that theatre directors should be queueing up to do it.”
McGroarty likens the aesthetic of his and Anderson’s production to the epic-scale community projects which used to happen in the now defunct Theatre Workshop venue in Edinburgh on an annual basis throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“One of the gems of doing this is to be able to say to our friends in Europe to pick a scene and do it in the style that they would normally do things, and it will go on uncensored,” he says Doing that might create an uneven aesthetic, but that’s part of the show’s spirit, to allow people to collaborate as honestly as possible.”
As a calling card for internationalist ambition as Brexit Britain looks set to stifle artistic exchanges, The Last Days of Mankind is making quite a statement.
“It’s not Oh, What A Lovely War,” McGroarty says. “This show is not a red poppy show or a white poppy show. It’s a piece of literature written a hundred years ago that’s anti-war, and it works.”
The Last Days of Mankind, Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, November 10-16 (not November 12).
The Herald, November 8th 2018