This ambitious production marks an important re-establishment of co-operation between two of our finest theatrical establishments – The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and The Bristol Old Vic itself.
Firstly, I have to confess I had never heard of Karl Kraus and his epic The Last Days of Mankind. On the strength of seeing this play and further investigation, that is a situation I will aim to rectify.
So, what of The Last Days of Mankind and where to start? Apparently the original play was 800 pages long and this version has been distilled from that. Nevertheless, the play is an unrelenting roller-coaster ride starting in a confident and arrogant 1913 Vienna, heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ending in the mire of all that it once held dear. The play is a frenetic tirade against conflict, taking the press as its main target. Public opinion is formed and manipulated by the newspapers and truth, as we well know, becomes the first casualty of war. There is a beautiful line, directed at the newspaper’s editor, accusing him of using the soldiers’ blood as his ink. There are so many parallels with modern-day media involvement in conflicts – atrocities staged just for the cameras, invasions timed to correspond with prime-time news bulletins, that you feel the piece could have been written yesterday – plus ça change.
This is billed as a co-production between the two Bristol institutions. All of the twenty-six actors are students from the School while the direction, design etc. have been shared between “the professionals” at the theatre and the students. Visually it is spectacular with the lighting and special effects sometimes taking the breath away.
The performances by the young actors were excellent and consistent, bearing in mind the hundreds of characters they were asked to portray. It is difficult to pick anyone out but Darren Seed was spellbinding as the innocent but willing Simple Soldier, keen to follow orders, whatever they may be and wherever they may lead him. I particularly liked the scene where he is haphazardly and listlessly launching mortars while unable to explain or justify what he is doing or why. It is in the final act of the play that, all innocence lost, he wanders aimlessly, observing the destruction and devastation until he is finally crucified, metaphorically, in the hope that the sins will be cleansed and the burdens borne. Truth is subjective, innocence is not, so maybe that is the greater casualty of war.
Alec Fellows-Bennett is also good as The General who spends his war in the Café Central or somewhere similar. There is a wonderful moment where he demands cream for his cake while the bedraggled troops emerge from the smoke in a grim procession of death to the soothing strains of the Blue Danube. At the end of the play, while the Simple Soldier is strung-up, the General is reborn as a slurping infant, still demanding nourishment and, in a very theatrical moment, a new-born baby with a small moustache emerges from the skirts of a screaming peasant – and we all know what happened next.
It would have been an ambitious undertaking for the National or the RSC to mount The Last Days of Mankind. For a drama school, albeit with the co-operation of a major theatre, to present such an accomplished, original and successful production is a real achievement and one for which everyone involved should be truly proud. ★★★★★ Michael Hasted
All production and rehearsal photographs by and courtesy of Graham Burke