War with the Newts

You could probably watch the eighty minutes of War with the Newts (which I saw in the Royal Exchange studio) and enjoy it for the well told story, the immersive style staging, the technical aspects and the attention to detail. Not to mention some very impressive acting and the well paced writing. Because it is an interesting story of how the Newts went from subservient subspecies to rulers of the world, how we first exploited them and ultimately how we facilitated their rise to become masters of our planet.

But for me the joy of the production is also in the intellectual stimulation. The Newts are of course a proxy for the ‘other’ in our world. This shifts throughout the play. It is at different times the people we have displaced from their land through colonialism, immigrants, xenophobia, slavery, exploitation of cheap labour through globalisation, artifical intelligence, maybe more. Certainly they skilfully weave the threats of Brexit through the production, asking what happens if the UK becomes irrelevant? In the end it’s about how capitalism will always be exploitative – of people, of resources – and how sometimes that comes back to bite us. What if we become the losers?

I mean let’s be realistic. Many theatre companies faced with a story like this would struggle to stage it. Yet Knaïve Theatre (who also did the excellent One Man Bin Laden) find an engaging way to tell their story, using the very effective premise of putting us on board a ship where we watch history being reconstructed compete with interruptions and rogue material. Cleverly, the live action fuses with the video as scenes become distorted. We sit on upturned orange oyster boxes and the backdrop is constructed from the same vivid materials, inlaid with three video screens. The ‘play’ revolves around key scenes which are acted out by the cast of three, supported by ‘Max Headroom’ style video.

It’s hard to be critical of this play. I haven’t read the book from which it comes – by Czech author Karel Čapek – but the source material is clearly rich in satire and allusion. Probably enough material for another play focusing solely on how science is presented. The best plays always leave you wanting more. As the play concludes I find my mouth is wide open, really quite in awe at how Knaïve Theatre have constructed such a wonderful play with important political messages for today.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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