Karl Kraus’ epic play, The Last Days of Mankind, was originally over 800 pages long and required a cast of 500 in its unedited form. You’ll be very pleased to hear that co-directors Toby Hulse and John Retallack have cut it down to a slim 2 hours in this Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School co-production. Gracing our stage in late June, rehearsals have begun and we thought we’d ask Toby to tell us a little bit more about the show…
Twenty six actors, an army of technicians, the stage of the newly renovated Bristol Old Vic, the resources and talents of the world famous Theatre School – when we first starting talking about this collaboration, the first ever in the history of the two institutions, we knew that we were going to have to find an extraordinary play to do justice to the riches we had available to us. The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus is such a play. At turns savagely comic, deeply moving and sharply satirical, this chronicle of the early years of the First World War through Austrian eyes is both epic in its scope and slap bang up to date in its targets.
Adapting the mammoth original text compiled by Kraus from contemporary documents, newspaper reports, letters and overheard conversations was not only a joy – every one of its scenes (and there are over one hundred of them) is startling and gloriously funny – but also highly illuminating. This was a First World War that we did not recognise, fought in mountains, ice and snow, written from a distinctly European perspective very different from the voice of the English poets we knew so well. This was the story of the collapse of a vast Empire, the fragmentation of a society and the destruction of a city which all the leading intellectuals and artists of the time chose to make their home.
Creating a play with such a vast cast offers all sorts of opportunities not normally available to us as directors: depicting a whole society from richest to poorest, lighting up the stage with the Viennese waltz, seeing wave after wave of soldiers perish in a suicidal charge against machine guns… we have only just begun to explore all the possibilities. And as a co-production between Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School we are able to marry together in our creative and technical teams the talents and experience of seasoned professionals with the enthusiasm and fresh insights of graduating students.
The Last Days of Mankind is exciting, relevant and hilarious, with a gripping story at its heart. It will be unlike any other production that you have seen, either by Bristol Old Vic, or by the Theatre School. It is a piece that could only have been made in collaboration, bringing out the best of what both have to offer. We really look forward to welcoming you to Bristol Old Vic to share it with us all.
The Last Days of Mankind is at Bristol Old Vic 18-29 Jun. Find out more here.
Photography by Graham Burke