Knaive Theatre’s reworking of Czech author Karel Capek’s 1937 novel War with the Newts is a striking adaptation of an unfairly forgotten sci-fi masterpiece that will leave you laughing, gasping and shaking with terror.
A remarkable feat that a science fiction show of this scope can be pulled off so well
We are led one at a time in a factory-like procession into the basement of Summerhall. Designated as the survivors of some great cataclysm we are greeted by seemingly robotic hosts, who cheerily relate to us the history of this disaster. It all begins when humanity discover a race of sentient and intelligent newts who they soon enslave, exploit and, as soon becomes apparent, completely underestimate.
From the moment you step foot into the theatre you feel transported into another world, which is a testament to the incredible mood crafted in this intimate space: from the stellar sound design that evokes the chills of a John Carpenter soundtrack, to the astounding set that makes us feel trapped in the bowels of an ancient decaying vessel. The show’s incredible job at world-building draws us into the absurdity and horror of this sci-fi dystopia, and had me glued to the edge of the fish container I was sat on for the entirety of the performance.
This mood servies the story perfectly, as the tale dives head first into an exploration of the follies of capitalism and its effect on destroying and exploiting anything it touches. Through an impressive narrative that spans decades of history and a set of incredible performances by the three-person cast, who each play a multitude of characters, we are shown the history of the newt race through the eyes of humanity, as they seek to understand and eventually exploit it. Through this the production deftly shows how even actions with the best of intentions can be warped and twisted to the point of simply doing more harm than good. The narrative demonstrates, however, a subtly in its approach to these issues and never sacrifices the believability or integrity of its characters to critique the toxicity of forces like capitalism and nationalism.
Unfortunately the show does have a few bumps here and there, the sense of interactivity we are given as we enter into the auditorium quickly disappears when the show begins, which represents a lost opportunity to fully integrate the audience into the proceedings. In addition, for a show about a race of sentient newts, they very rarely are given a chance to seen or have an effect on stage, and it would have been interesting to flesh out their interactions with their human masters more fully.
Regardless of these small points, War with the Newts is unlike anything else you are going to see at the Festival, and it is a remarkable feat that a science fiction show of this scope can be pulled off so well in the trying conditions of the Festival. You owe to yourself to take the strange surreal trip into a world that, whilst not always comfortable, is never boring.