The Last Night of Mankind, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The power and the gory
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The Independent Culture

The second production in this year's official festival programme, The Last Night of Mankind, challenges those who argue that cutting-edge theatre has migrated to the Fringe. The Argentinian company El Periferico de Objetos is committed to radical work and, not surprisingly in the aftermath of Argentina's "dirty" war of the late Seventies and early Eighties, is preoccupied with the abuse of power: "We must confront the subject of power and the lies about the way power is used to expose hypocrisy."

The Last Night of Mankind, prepared for audiences in Buenos Aires and at the Vienna Festival, is inspired by Karl Kraus's discourse of catastrophe, The Last Days of Mankind, which enjoyed a successful Edinburgh airing more than 20 years ago. "This play is the blood of your blood... it can be reached by no waking senses, by no living memories," Kraus declared in this work of protest against a world he thought was going mad.

El Periferico's theatre piece is devised by two of the play's directors, Emilio Garcia Wehbi (who also appears on stage) and Ana Alvarado. Moving a long way from Kraus's imperial Vienna setting before and during the First World War, they have created their own apocalyptic message for this century: "We can break it into 100,000 new pieces and make it into a new composition." Kraus's 600-page epic and 1,000 characters are the stimulus for a near-wordless creation with just five characters.

The first half, "The Apocalyptic and Hydrocephalic Operetta", takes place in a small enclosed space in which everything is naked, even the light bulb. The lights go dimly up on a frieze, a mass of intertwined bodies steeped in mud. One bawls a cynical lament (with accordion), augmented by occasional surtitles that flit enigmatically before us. Five human bodies disentangle themselves from the inanimate mass - the puppets that form a horribly realistic part of this human jungle - and proceed to indulge in "echoes of bloody madness".

The dead (the puppets) are forced to dance in the slime to the strains of a fairground tune, before being subjected to graphically simulated displays of human degradation and cruelty, forced fellatio, anal rape, a baby gouged out of a dead mother's womb. Finally, the survivors of this devastated creation turn brutally on each other, before spraying themselves with champagne. Whether the violence is a shock tactic or a wake-up call to our consciences is left up to each audience member to decide.

In the second part our five characters, all cleaned up, are entombed in "The White Room", a sterile space enclosed within a scrim and containing a fridge, television monitor, record player and five little white chairs. The voice of a controller, a robotic Big Brother, replaces their names with numbers, dictates their every action and informs them that this is their new home. With film and video clips, and a game of chance left to drive events, the psychological torture begins here. Matters soon degenerate into boxing, brawling and murder.

The atmosphere of The Last Night of Mankind is both timeless and specific in its initial brutalism and its comment on the way mankind is cynically manipulated. The warm reception to this modern parable suggests that El Periferico's provocative production found an audience willing to engage.

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