As the final touches are put to the production of The Last Days of Mankind and they prepare to open the show, we caught up with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School student Nik Partridge, who is one of three assistant directors on the production.
Photography by Graham Burke
There are two directors and three assistant directors on this show. How have you made that work?
It’s worked out remarkably well. As there is such a large acting company (26 in total), John and Toby often can’t be working with everyone at the same time, which means there is plenty of time to go off and work with different groups of characters. We have also split the play into different sections for each assistant director to look at. I’m looking at text and am involved in dramaturgy so I will feedback to John and Toby about things like structure and how the play is shaping up tonally. Martin [Berry] is looking at sound and music, and Lisa [Gregan] is involved with movement and choreography. So there’s the eternal (and entirely fictitious) question: how many directors does it take to change a light bulb? I think five is about the right number, well for this play anyway.
What did you think of the script when you read it?
As I don’t read German fluently enough, I didn’t read the original Kraus. It’s probably lucky I didn’t, as at over 800 pages long I’d probably still be here doing it. So my first introduction to Kraus was through the adaptation by John and Toby. To support this I read the American academic translation of it and listened to the BBC Radio 3 recordings of another version that was done a few years back. The sense I got when I first read it was that there was this unflinching, fiercely satirical humour to it that gave it a great emotional impact. You find yourself laughing and then realise the truth behind what you are laughing at. It’s a clever device that works very well and highlights, perhaps better than any other style, the reality behind war. It was also fascinating to read it knowing that much of it is verbatim and drawn from overheard conversations because there are so many brilliantly constructed scenes of drama.
John and Toby have also used a little bit of dramatic licence on the script too haven’t they?
Yes. When Kraus originally wrote the play he had two characters called the Optimist and the Grumbler. During research for the play John and Toby came across Kraus’ lover and muse, Baroness Sidi Nadherny. In their version, the character of Sidi takes many of the lines of the Optimist and Kraus, who is both within and outside of his own play, takes many of the Grumbler. It’s been really interesting discovering the human relationship between those two characters and I think they’ve come up with something really remarkable.
There are also a number of other influences on the writing such as ‘Storm of Steel’, a German account of the war by Ernst Junger, Stefan Zweig’s ‘The World of Yesterday’ and the memoirs of Don McCullin, the war photographer.
Which scene has been the biggest challenge for you?
All the scenes offer challenges in slightly different ways, whether that is working the entire company to find big choral pictures, delving into individual characters and trying to find the right tone for the scene or trying to navigate 26 actors through wartime Vienna across a space only as big as the Bristol Old Vic forestage. What I’ve realised is that the range of challenges we have faced in rehearsals only go to show the production’s ambition, variety and scope and that is something that’s very exciting.
Who would enjoy this show?
Fans of Austrian political and satirical writing aside, I think it is a play that will appeal to a wide range of people. It’s a play that isn’t stuck in the past, it has a real universality and is as relevant today as when Kraus wrote it all those years ago. Kraus’ vision of a manipulated and corrupted press seems to echo more strongly than ever today against the backdrop of the Leveson Inquiry. When the Nurse in Act One asks, ‘What is a single human life worth?’ one immediately thinks of the images from Syria that are finding their way onto our television screens. Kraus was a visionary, writing with an understanding or the world far ahead of his time and an understanding of humanity that many still fail to grasp today. Even if none of this appeals to you- the play is epic, big, bold and funny, which means that I think anyone will enjoy it. It showcases some of the best talent that Bristol has to offer- the first ever co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It’s going to be a little moment of history, so don’t miss it.
The Last Days of Mankind runs at Bristol Old Vic from 18-29 Jun. Find out more here.
Interview by Alex Milward.