When theatre director John Paul McGroarty was a 19-year-old drama student rushing to see a play he had to go into a pub to ask where Leith Theatre was after getting blank looks from passersby. A customer at the bar shouted out the answer - “the laddie’s looking for the town hall.”
Now, 30 years later McGroarty, is co-directing the world premiere of ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, the epic anti-war satire by Viennese writer Karl Kraus (1874-1936) to commemorate the Armistice of the First World War, and which will be the first production by Leith Theatre in its high-profile relaunch.
“I remember when I walked into the fabulous foyer entrance for a production by the Taganka Theatre of Moscow I was amazed to smell the incense and see large icons of Russian theatre on the pillars,” said McGroarty.
“The stalls were packed and I was just stunned, there was something about it, its grandeur and charm which has stayed with me all my life, becoming a burning lifetime ambition to stage a play there.
“Little did I know that the day would come when I’d walk through the stage door rather than the foyer, and be at the helm for this beautiful theatre in the heart of Leith coming to life again.”
The play, which runs until 16 November, is Leith Theatre’s first full-scale major production in over 20 years.
It is being co-directed by McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson from Theaterlabor Germany,
The European cast performing the new translation and adaptation of the play features actors from Scotland, Germany, Poland, Serbia, France, Ukraine, Ireland and England.
Kraus, who was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and regarded as “the master of venomous ridicule”, took his inspiration from first-hand testimonies and newspaper reports, and riled against blind patriotism, militarism, German and Austrian politics and the press.
The theatre in Ferry Road, which opened as part of the new town hall and library in 1932, has had a turbulent history. It was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and mothballed twice. The first time it was closed down between 1941 and 1961, then between 1989 until around 2016.
It was then used sporadically as a rock venue, hosting bands including Thin Lizzy and AC/DC and for Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) shows.
One of the most famous and acclaimed performances staged there was ‘Macbeth’ - known as the ‘Samuri Macbeth’, directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the internationally renown Japanese stage director.
Ninagawa, famous for his innovative interpretations of Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies whose works received star billing at the EIF, moved the action to a 16th century samurai world dominated by warring chiefs.
The local community also used the premises and it was a regular venue for school concerts, Boys Brigade shows, circuses boxing matches and was even used as a weight lifting base centre during the 1970 Commonwealth Games in the city.
Famous visitors include Labour politicians Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and James Callaghan who attended Labour Party rallies in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Queen Mother also spoke at a National Savings conference there in 1966
It was also closed again between 1989 and 2018, but was used for a number of productions including EIF events. and the Hidden Doors Festival and events by poetry collective Neu! Reekie!.
In 2016 the Leith Theatre Trust was granted a five-year lease from Edinburgh City Council, which may be extended to 30 years.
McGroarty, a former director of both the Traverse Theatre and Leith Festival, added: “Kraus was one of the few artists who kept working through the war, he was writing away, taking in newspaper clippings, writing about things as they happened. He made a docudrama 100 years before anyone had a thought of a docudrama.”
The theatre’s auditorium is being transformed into a Viennese cafe with cabaret style seating for the performances.
The performance includes the Oliver award-winning cabaret artists The Tiger Lillies performing ten new songs written by Martyn Jacques.
Professor Patrick Healy, who translated Kraus’ work, said: “It is an extraordinary honour that they are using my translation. There never was a complete translation and without a translation you can’t get a complete view of what is going on.”
During the play’s run, Cafe Europa at the theatre will host a week-long series of events aimed at encouraging youngsters to consider theatre careers.
Mike Griffiths, director of the Leith Theatre and executive producer of ‘The Days of Mankind’, said the play was the fruition of hard graft to win funding and breath new life into the venue.
“This is the first piece in Leith Theatre which we’re creating ourselves.
“Edinburgh City Council gave us some money to get started on the first phase of getting the theatre up and running on a temporary basis. We’ve got £1million alloctated to us and we’ve now got to put together a business plan.”
The trust has also received grants from Creative Scotland, the European Union and private sponsorship.
* The Last Days of Mankind, Leith Theatre, Ferry Road, Edinburgh - preview 10 November, Sunday 11, 13, 14, 15, 16. Tickets 08004118881. Online box office: www.thelastdaysofmankindshow.com