Theatre reviews: The Last Days of Mankind, Leith Theatre | Puffin, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

Michael Grunert and Thomas Behrend of Theaterlabor, Germany in the production of The Last Days of Mankind at Leith Theatre
Michael Grunert and Thomas Behrend of Theaterlabor, Germany in the production of The Last Days of Mankind at Leith Theatre
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Yesterday, the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stood with the British royal family at the Cenotaph, during the centenary ceremonies for Armistice Day; but the fact that it has taken 73 years to achieve this simple gesture of reconciliation reminds us how easy it is for commemoration to become a one-sided affair, reflecting the same nationalistic assumptions that may have made war possible in the first place.

The Last Days of Mankind, Leith Theatre ****

Puffin, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh ****

There’s no chance of that, though, down at Leith Theatre; where, after years of planning and fund-raising, director John-Paul McGroarty brings together an international cast of more than 30 performers – including the legendary post-punk macabre cabaret band The Tiger Lillies, led by Martin Jacques – to create a new theatrical version of Karl Kraus’s mighty satirical epic The Last Days Of Mankind, which views the folly, tragedy, absurdity and sheer human suffering of the First World War from the heart of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, as along with its German allies, it goes down to defeat and destruction.

Kraus himself described his vast 500-scene drama as unperformable; and so it partly proves, even in the much-shortened three-and-a-half-hour version co-created by translator Patrick Healy, directors John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson, visual designer Mark Holthusen, and a cast drawn from seven theatre companies based in Scotland, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Ukraine, Ireland and France. Somewhere in the last hour, the production seems to lose its thread, as company after company tries to evoke the end of the world with varying degrees of success; and even the brilliant and ever-inventive Martin Jacques finally seems to run out of songs.

Up to that point, though, this hugely ambitious and disturbing version of the play occupies the vast space of Leith Theatre with a thrilling sense of occasion and momentum, as the audience sits around at cafe-style tables, and the company drive us scene by through Kraus’s bitterly satirical vision of the conflict like so many increasingly distraught cabaret acts, all linked together by a biting, superbly-performed score of a dozen Tiger Lillies’ songs that demonstrate with fierce precision exactly how this war set the scene for the darkly cynical 1930s cabaret culture from which the band draw their inspiration.

Kraus’s text is remarkable for its obsession with the role of the media in creating insane levels of war fever, a preoccupation which offers a stunningly direct link to today’s millennial anxieties about the propagation of hate on the internet. And with an ever-changing backdrop of huge, brilliantly-blended visual images of the war projected against Leith Theatre’s great proscenium wall, The Last Days Of Mankind offers something that remains all too rare in our remembrance rituals; a sense of the First World War as a catastrophe for all of Europe and beyond, that shaped our world in ways that still reverberate through our lives today, and that can still bring us together in grief, rage, and the possibility of redemption, if, like the Leith Theatre team, we seize the chance to reach out across the continent, and refuse to take no for an answer.

It seems odd to find a similar apocalyptic mood in Snap Elastic’s new show Puffin, for children aged seven and over; but in truth, this one-hour show created by performers Alice Mary Cooper and Claire Willoughby, with director Eszter Marsalko, is a strikingly bold effort to confront the realities of possible climate breakdown through the story of two people, Tarkan and Clump, who go every yewar to greet the puffins on their return to a certain cliff-top, only to find that this year, there are no puffins.

Set in a near future where bread is short and sunshine a rarity, Puffin is at times an unbearably sad show about the end of the world, or at least our familiar version of it; and its more light-hearted scenes presume too much on our interest in the fretful relationship between the two characters. Yet it features an exquisite score and soundscape by Daniel Padden, beautifully performed by Willoughby and Cooper; and there is something so brave and lyrical about its attempt to confront young audiences with the reality of what we have done to the earth, while never totally abandoning hope, that it finally becomes a shiveringly powerful play for our time, for adults and strong-minded children everywhere. - Joyce McMillan

The Last Days of Mankind at Leith Theatre until 16 November; Puffin on tour until 25 November.