by Rachel Beaumont

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Whimsified outrage: War with the Newts by Knaïve Theatre

War with the Newts
Knaïve Theatre
The Bunker
Unreserved, £19.50
12 October 2018
Knaïve page

I adore Čapek’s War with the Newts and my primary drivers for seeing this theatre adaptation were eagerness to relive the book’s glory and curiosity as to how it could be made to work on stage, two things which might have been mutually exclusive. Fortunately Tyrrell Jones’s version for Knaïve Theatre is not only thoroughly entertaining but also true to the book’s spirit of whimsy combined with political outrage.

Every event on stage has its origin in the book, and yet Jones and his cast deftly transcend the decades to enmesh Čapek’s interwar angst with our own frightening times: humans retreating as the sea encroaches upon the land; western Europe’s imperialist legacy of profiteering exploitation; job loss through cheap labour; the far-reaching effects of slavery and discrimination; British exceptionalism; mass migration; spin and post-truth; the commoditization of education; and binding all together the relentless rapacity of capitalism.

All of which sounds like a super-heavy bucket list, but there enters the whimsy. It’s of a harder form than Čapek’s gently morose black comedy but then that probably suites the medium and the time. Knaïve make a gestures towards immersive theatre, branding the entering audience with newt types; distributing life jackets to a chosen few; and imagining, very effectively, the Bunker theatre as a historic ship, an assumed and temporary sanctuary that by the play’s end will yield to the avenging newts. It feels a little like the audience participation idea is not followed through, but on the other hand it very effectively turns the tables, explicitly placing us in the newts’ original defenceless position.

Participation or non-participation aside, the cast of three, Everal A. Walsh, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Sam Redway, and their video avatars, are all excellent, speedily establishing distinct, credible and interesting characters within the space of seconds, making a virtue out of the production’s conceit to play out each scene as a recovery from a video archive, which in other hands could easily have been annoying but here felt an ingenious response to the book’s episodic nature.

The energy and aptitude of the cast, the ingenuity of the set and sound design, the unbroken thread of humour all ensure this short show is a lot of fun – and its political fervour woven seamlessly into this entertainment, never heavy-handed but also always forthright, makes this War with the Newts a fitting tribute to Čapek’s original.

17 Oct 2018, 11:49 p.m.

David P

Yes well I thoroughly agree. I think they did the SFX particularly well; some other plays have been known to turn their amps up to the max and use audio assault as a filler for actual suspense and atmosphere. Not so here. Also worth noting the cunning way the newts were never shown to us, which I thought was just really smart design. You'd never get it right, and it was much better to leave them as fancied glimpse in the corner of your skittish eye.

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