War With the Newts @ Summerhall

The Skinny / Jon Stapley

War With the Newts @ Summerhall

An almost absurd satirical sci-fi novel from the 1930s is an unexpectedly perfect lens through which to view our current, turbulent times.

Czech author Karel Čapek wrote his satirical sci-fi novel Válka s mloky (War With the Newts) in 1936; a time of acute anxiety for Čapek and fellow Czechoslovakians, with nationalism rearing its head in neighbouring Germany. The resultant novel was a charming oddity whose story still resonates; a discovery of a new species of intelligent newt gives rise to a new post-work globalised society, which ultimately collapses in a mess of tribalism, nationalism and fatal squabbling. It’s not hard to see why Knaïve Theatre felt this was a story worth adapting for 2018.

The setup: we’re adrift at sea in a post-cataclysm nightmare. Three disembodied personalities on television screens power up their entertainment systems to bring us the story of the rise and fall of newt-based capitalism. An early promise of an interactive experience (on entrance we’re given different hand-stamps based on our answers to some questions) peters out swiftly, and we settle in.

Tyrrell Jones’ production places the majority of the action on a fishing vessel, and Summerhall’s basement is redressed with the filth and grit of a boat at work. This Czech story becomes British to its bones, touching on everything from the question of post-Brexit fishing to the plight of Welsh former mining towns gutted by globalisation.

Three actors fill out the many parts in this complex tale – Everal A Walsh, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Sam Redway, all of whom do excellent jobs of sketching complex characters. Highlights include Walsh’s gruff but kind-hearted Captain van Toch, Kemp-Sayfi’s self-made businesswoman Bondy, and Redway’s prim and proper British ambassador, whose faux pas in a negotiation with the newts is a moment of sublime comedy. This show can be uproariously funny when it needs to be, just as it can be sad, mysterious, unsettling and terrifying.