The Last Days of Mankind

Leith Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Alarm bells sound from the off for the official Armistice Day opening of this spectacular tendering of Austrian writer Karl Kraus’ post First World War epic, presented in a brand new translation by Patrick Healy. Opening more than three hours of cartoon-like sketches that make up an explosive Dadaist/Brechtian live art cabaret take on twentieth century history, the bells may be calling time, but they add a sense of urgency to this international co-production that sees the first theatre production in Leith Theatre for almost three decades.

Spearheaded by co-directors John Paul McGroarty of the new Yard Heads company alongside Yuri Birte Anderson of Germany’s Theaterlabor, companies from France, Ireland, Poland and Ukraine take part in a devastatingly cynical take on how the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo set in motion a set of events from which the world is still reeling.

Elites, fake news and a whole lot of other contemporary concerns are all in a mix of physical and musical set-pieces in which two versions of Kraus himself watch proceedings from the tables in the auditorium that conjures up Viennese café society of the era. A cast of thirty play out a series of choreographed tableaux that show off the full ugliness of war through a series of archetypes that highlight the divide between rich opportunists and poor cannon fodder. This is done through a series of stunning images to illustrate the text, just as the mix of archive footage and constructivist collages that form designer Mark Holthusen’s equally striking backdrops do.

At the heart of this is The Tiger Lillies, the pasty-faced junkyard cabaret trio led by Martyn Jacques, who becomes a grotesquely captivating MC of sorts. With the band onstage throughout, their newly composed set of narrative vignettes sung by Jacques add an even darker layer of malevolence to a show that may be as overwhelmingly fractured as the war that sired it, but leaves its audience quietly shell-shocked by such a mighty theatrical feat.