An Interview with Martin Bassindale, Performer in The Last Days of Mankind

With twenty six performers The Last Days of Mankind has one of the largest casts our Theatre has seen in the last seven or eight years (answers on a postcard if you can think of one!). All the members are graduating third year students from the excellent Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and this first ever co-production between Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was the perfect opportunity for directors John Retallack and Toby Hulse to take on as epic a play as The Last Days of Mankind. Its sprawling scope catches Vienna in a time a of crisis during WW1 and, with a satirical string in its bow, it aims, fires and slays any doubt you might have had about the Press’s involvement in that  ‘war to end all war’. We caught up with performer Martin Bassindale to talk about the show…

Martin Bassindale and Josephin Rattigan

Martin Bassindale and Josephine Rattigan

What part do you play?
In The Last Days of Mankind I’m playing Archbishop Karl Watzger, a real man who was tirelessly preaching in pre-war Vienna, and Heinrich Weber, the talent agent of famous actress Elfriede Ritter. They are both archetypal characters in the pre-war Vienna society, a city with outdated, struggling churches and a complete obsession with theatre.

In a nutshell, describe what the show’s about.
On a personal level it’s a revenge against my old history teacher. He was rubbish and I completely ignored the syllabus on WWI. This show is about re-telling the story in a truthful, fresh, unique and exhilarating way. And it’s also quite educational for me.
On a big level, the show exposes the fascinating society of pre-war Vienna. The city of Beethoven, apelstruddel and sachertorte, and many other things other than food. Then it explores what happened when war was declared and the aftermath. Take an ensemble of actors, get them to play a huge range of bold characters, put them in dazzling comic book costumes, add Monty-Python esque humour and some Kubrick-eqse horror and you might have an idea. Think Tarantino meets Horrible Histories. 

What’s been the most interesting/frightening/exhilarating thing about this show?
The size. Originally the play was over eight hundred pages long and had over one hundred characters. It was un-performable. My script is sixty-three pages long. That’s seven hundred and thirty seven pages gone! It’s a brilliant challenge portraying a society at such a pivotal moment in history in such a brief play.
It’s also very interesting empathising with their society. This is a society which cheered when war was declared, which rushed to sign up, which didn’t pause before starting what became an unimaginable slaughter. This mentality is so alien to us now that it makes our jobs as storytellers quite hard but brilliantly engaging.

How does this production compare to other shows you’ve been in?
My last show was a three-hander above a pub in Clifton. The difference is huge. There are five dressing rooms for starters.

What is it like to work with such a big cast, creative team and technical team?
Really inspiring. You’re continually surrounded by people who are top of their game; be it sound engineers, costume supervisors, set designers, directors, choreographers. It’s like a little army of creative power. 

What will it be like to perform this show on the Bristol Old Vic stage?
Great. Bringing WWI into a Georgian theatre will be immense. The boldness of the show, design and sound will be really interesting in such as beautiful theatre.

Why should people come and see this show?
It was written between 1913-17 and has been performed once on radio and once in Scotland in 1983 since then. Which means if you miss it you’ll have to wait another seventy years to see it again. Plus it’s an incredible, unique bold piece of theatre.

The Last Days of Mankind runs from 18-29 Jun at Bristol Old Vic. Find out more here.

Photography by Graham Burke.

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