• Ian

War with the Newts - Knaive Theatre

Cast, Doncaster. 13.11.18

First things first: this is Knaive Theatre’s only performance in Doncaster, following a three-week run at the Bunker Theatre in London, and before that a run at the Edinburgh Fringe. For this, their ostensible final show, one of the (three) cast members has been taken ill, and the company is forced to make rather sudden changes - namely, that director Tyrrell Jones will be reading the actor’s lines into a mic from the lighting deck, and we’re asked to use our imagination to picture the absent body on stage.

This gives rise to one of those wonderful theatrical nights (apologies, sick cast member) where the show we’re seeing is uniquely, brilliantly different to any other performance, and everyone knows it. The remaining cast handle it as well as they can, mucking in with the odd prop movement and reacting gamely to the missing actor, nodding enthusiastically as if the poor bugger was there and not somewhere else, presumably with a bucket in reach.

War with the Newts is adapted by the company from Karel Capek's 1936 novel - Capek being also responsible for ostensibly the first science fiction play, R.U.R. I suspect that part of the problem I have with Knaive’s play can be traced back to Capek’s rather stiff, moralising story - but that remains to be seen.

Photos by The Other Richard

We begin on a trawler - no, wait, we actually begin as we enter the auditorium, where cast members ask us a variety of questions - “how is your brain function since the incident on a scale of one to ten?”, “how has your mood been, on a scale of red to green, since the incident?”. Depending on our answers, our hands are stamped with one of several descriptors - I say “yellow” and am labelled Oddjobs. We’re escorted to a seating area, either lovingly in the case of those stamped “team” and “leading”, or abusively in the case of “oddjobs” or “spawn”. We are then summarily told, via digitised facial projections, that we are on a rescue ship headed to safe harbour, and our in-float entertainment will be archive footage (or re-enactments, or holograms - not sure) of the events that led us all to be fleeing in the first place. We flit between this future framing narrative where we are all refugees, and the main plot of the play, which is effectively the backstory to how we all ended up where we are.

So, we begin on a trawler, with an oyster shucking crew who accidentally initiate first contact with the sea-dwelling creatures we come to know as the newts. The captain - provided by the disembodied voice of Jones with a good stab at Grizzled Northern Sailor - teaches the newts to shuck oysters (as you do), and finds that they are quick workers. Spying a fresh source of labour, he reaches out to a company and effectively corners the oyster-shucking market.

And then...a lot happens. Naturally, we exploit the hell out of the newts, using them as unpaid labourers (read: slaves), we break them up into function-based groups (leading, team, oddjobs etc), we draft them into the military, we treat them unspeakably, etc. Obviously, this has repercussions (the clue is in the title). The newts become (or reveal themselves to be) sentient, they begin to flood coastal towns, they take control of nuclear submarines (whoops), they negotiate a temporary truce with humanity in which Great Britain, the original exploiter of their race, is sunk beneath the sea as eye-for-an-eye payment for atrocities committed. Like I say, a lot happens.

The play’s primary weakness is the fact that the newts are used as metaphorical fodder for basically every ill we have visited upon ourselves in the past few hundred years. Slavery, imperialism, warfare, name it, we do it to the newts. We also get inklings and sprinklings of Brexit (for quite some time, this is a play about reinvigorating the British fishing industry), climate change, international politics, the refugee crisis, and a sort of God/artificial intelligence parable in that we make the very thing that destroys us. The play’s politics are scattershot - scene by scene, we jump from one big issue to the next. While this gives some sense of the scale of injustice that we commit upon our fellow beings, it also makes the play unfixed and unfocused. Just as we’re thinking through the ramifications of modern-day serfdom, we’re into coastal flooding, then cultural reparations, then population exodus...the play bills itself as satire, but it’s so broad as to become pastiche.

And ultimately, it fails to find proper theatrical expression for this scope. The framing narrative - that we were all refugees in some newt-ruled future world - gives little clarity through its drip-feed approach to the story. It is also desperately, embarrassingly SCI-FI with its talk of "forbidden archives", “Entertainment Protocol 457263EZ” and three computerised, TV-screened crew members called One, Two and Three. I also didn't quite know when this narrative was taking place - the rest of the play seemed very contemporary, to its credit; so how did we end up here?

If the script throws everything at the wall to see what sticks, so too does the production. Along with the immersive entrance, we have TV screens, soundscapes, strobe lighting, knockabout comedy, and small-scale family drama. The play’s sound design is excellent, but the levels were intermittent, so I lost whole scenes under noise. There’s a friction between serious drama and weird comedy, such as when a British ambassador appears in his pants, like we’re suddenly in Monty Python territory. More annoyingly, the immersive element never returns, aside from some audience members being handed life jackets at one point. I genuinely thought at the end we were all going to be bundled out of the auditorium, but we weren’t - the lights came up, the actors bowed, we summarily sodded off. So many ideas - precious little commitment to any of them.

To an extent, some of this can be laid at Capek’s feet, while some elements must be accepted as par for the course due to actor illness - maybe we were going to be thrown from the theatre, but doing it with two actors instead of three was deemed unworkable. Sadly, I suspect not. The production shoves everything it could think of into its seventy-ish minutes, scoring some initial hits but frustrating that success by piling metaphor upon metaphor, convolution upon convolution.

War with the Newts aims for epic, classic sci-fi, and I mean it when I say absolutely good for them for going after it. But there are too many concepts here - I’d have loved it to pick its handful of issues and nail them, not go hell-for-leather with the entire gamut of human/newt misery. Still, there are numerous glowing reviews, from Exeunt to New Scientist. So despite my own reservations, it's good to see this play is part of a wider conversation about science fiction, theatre and culture.