The Last Days of Mankind at Bristol Old Vic

This play is unperformable, says its writer, Karl Kraus.  At 800 pages long and with more than 100 characters, you can see his point.  But, stripped down to a cast of 26 young actors and told in just under two hours, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School makes impressive work of it.

Written and set in Austria during the Great War, The Last Days of Mankind is a satirical slice of History, told from the perspective of a writer and journalist who had little love for the Establishment and something bordering on hatred for the Press.

Vienna is in love with idea of the big fight, of War.  Ladies who lunch think it’s all a jolly hoot, mothers are gleaming with pride for their soldiering sons, the Church and the Army have little to lose and the newspapers have everything to gain.  It’ll all be over in no time anyway. Won’t it?

Kraus’ original script tells Vienna’s story from the point of view of a faceless collective: a Student; an Actress; a Military Nurse; a Serbian Soldier; a Lady of Culture.  Co-directors and co–adaptors Toby Hulse and John Retallack have chosen to give names to some of these representations, forging welcome boundaries that make the piece less confusing that it could have been.  It’s quite an achievement to even tackle the epic treatise; it has only been attempted twice in English (once as a stage play in 1983 and then as a radio play in 1999).  The Social Historian in me is highly excited by the knowledge that a US translation of the play, written originally in German, was found in the library of a BOVTS student!   A researcher’s dream.  And then to bring it all to life on stage?  To such good effect?  A fine job!

The cast is energetic, the stage alight with movement, the story is constantly unravelling, Death becomes Life becomes Death.  This play demands stamina of its actors and these guys give it.

And light becomes dark.

The interminable playing of the Viennese Waltz in Act One, highlighting the denial of a privileged, blinkered Society during the early days of the 1914-1918 War, had us thinking that the tune would be whirling in our heads for the rest of the week.  But, in the confusion and depicted Hell of the two subsequent acts, the playful dance is extinguished along with all Humanity.

The scenes at the Café Westminster (said with a German accent, of course, nothing to do with the Enemy) are among my favourite – the General demands cream with his cake, no matter there’s a war on!   And it’s such an inconvenience that the waiters have all gone to die in the trenches, who will serve him?

The rolling back of the stage towards the end of the first hour of the play illustrates the terrible realities outside of the great city, unravelling the Horror.  And, as soldier scrambles over fellow soldier in the fields of Europe, the press are unmovable in their quest for their own version of The (non) Truth, always with a hint of the ridiculous, never losing the satire.

This is thought provoking theatre, well-acted and performed with sparkle.  It made me want to find out more about Karl Kraus. I’m on my way to google – see if I can find the full, original manuscript. Wish me luck …

The Last Days of Mankind is at Bristol Old Vic until 29th June

– Review by Becky Condron

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Bluebeard at Bristol Old Vic

“Will he repulse or entertain?
“Or will he seduce you?”  Bristol Old Vic

Bluebeard is a serial killer.  He kills women; easy to prey on women – those who are lonely, naïve, sweet, confident.  It doesn’t matter who they are; they all make for ripe, effortless pickings.  Well, nearly all of them.

Gallivant’s modern day reworking of this dark fairy tale is told from the point of view of the eponymous anti-hero.  From the (dis)comfort of his studded leather chair, Bluebeard relays to us how he came to meet, seduce, beat and often murder his victims.  Sex and control are the name of the game and the three women we hear about are, to differing degrees, complicit in our storyteller’s sickness.  They love it, see, the violence.

Paul Mundell’s character is matter-of-fact: apart from the reality of his words and the imparting of his vicious crimes, he only comes across as truly unhinged once in the entire monologue.  The soulful lyrics and up-tempo beat of Northern Soul is a feature of this play and Mundell’s frustrated dance to Frankie Valli’s ‘The Night’ gives us a real glimpse into his madness (in fact, I think it’s my new favourite song), when he shakes in torment, lost in his own space.

We never know why he kills. “It’s innate,” he says.  And if a woman dares to pry into his past, his thoughts, his life … she’s for it!  And, of course, she deserves it.

I hated Bluebeard for its storyline, which seemed to sit uneasily with the whole audience.  As a woman, I wanted to thump this protagonist of pain, to throw my glass at him, to maybe even shoot him.   I wanted to protect every woman I have ever met.  From Bluebeard and from men like him.   It was equally uncomfortable viewing for a man, I was assured by my male companion, “Don’t give away tricks of the trade.  And … please don’t kill women!”

So, no, Bluebeard did nothing to seduce me (I’d hoped he would); not attractive in the slightest.  Along with the half dozen strip fluorescents, which were used to clever effect to represent the women and the craziness, he jarred me.  My eyes, I fear, are still suffering from the stage lighting.  And that maddening gentle hum throughout the play – is it still there?  In our heads?   A warning that won’t disappear?

Bluebeard is on at the Old Vic until Saturday 15th June

– Review by Becky Condron

Lionboy at Bristol Old Vic

A circus on a pirate ship, a boy left to row his way to France and a journey on the Orient Express with an eccentric aristocrat and .. oh yes, 6 escaped lions. These are some of the adventures of Charlie as he searches for his parents who have been kidnapped by the all powerful ‘Corporacy’, in a slightly menacing dystopian London set in the near future.

Charlie is an ordinary, likeable boy, with the exception that is, that he can talk to cats, all cats, including the aforementioned lions. The action proceeds at a cracking pace and includes lively performances from the cast. It is coloured by excellent live percussion throughout.

This is an imaginative and vigorous production which rattles through a rather complex plot which would not suit younger children however it is a satisfying romp for those over 10+.

 

– Review by Martin Campbell

 

Reuben, aged 8 – the best bits

The lizard spoke lots of languages. Charlie’s parents were in cages at Corporacy which had computerised locks. The lizard set them free by speaking to the computer system.

They projected a ladies face on to a drum – the lights and the cameras in the scene were great.