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

Review by Jon Stapley | 08 Aug 2018

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.

War With the Newts, Summerhall (Basement), until 26 Aug (not 20), 5pm and 8.15pm, £10-12

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