There’s a bit of a wait to get into War With The Newts. Each audience member has to be processed, a quick examination: vital signs checked, brain function monitored, sympathy offered for “the things you must have seen”. That kind of thing. A world is being implied for us by the three actors (Sam Redway, Everal A Walsh and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi). We are not so much declared healthy by this, but declared part of their world.
What a world it is: control, we quickly realise, of most of the planet has fallen to a race of intelligent newts. Whilst our rescue ship begins its departure, the cast (all of them, of course, androids) perform some ‘entertainments’ – just to keep us occupied – that re-enact the history of the rescue vessel, as well as other ‘real-life’ scenes from the ‘archive’. In doing so, they reveal the history of the newts’ discovery, their evolving relationship with humans and, eventually, the resultant war. Gradually, things start to go wrong: glitches in the interface, unscheduled segments, breaches in protocol. We see more than our leaders intend.
The beauty of War With The Newts lies in its detail. Whilst the premise is always absurd enough to be comedic, Tyrrell Jones’s script is consistently thoughtful and thorough. There is a subtlety and an internal consistency to the writing and performances that convey a sense of authenticity, even when the situations are at their silliest. This duality allows two simultaneous reactions from the audience: at once we can feel completely invested in the characters (both in the historic tableaux and evolving situation on the ship itself), and also revel in the smart, colourful construction of the whole piece. Even down to the show’s techies waving us goodbye animatronically as we exit, War With The Newts fully commits to its premise. It doesn’t blink.
This completeness is enhanced by the way War With The Newts looks and sounds. Hannah Sibai’s set design – from the red water troughs where the newts are bred to the orange containers in which they are transported – provides a strong visual aesthetic. We are convinced that the objects here once had a clear localised function, but have been repurposed now for a world of refugees. There is also something so plausible and tangible about the set’s excessively plastic texture. Equally important work is done by Robert Bentall’s sound design, which is the main medium through which the newts themselves ‘appear’ on-stage: we hear them so physically that I kept expecting one to punch its way through the wall.
Like Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel on which the play is based, the production offers a range of satiric valences rather than one straightforward allegory. The one that aligns most strongly – both in the choices that Jones makes in his adaptation and in the way that the story speaks to our current moment – is the newts as metaphor for the automation of human labour. The newts can repeat any action. The newts can learn for themselves. The newts (allegedly) cannot think or create for themselves. The newts will liberate us from work. The production hits this particular allegory pretty hard. The syndicate masterminding society’s transformation even names them ‘NewTech’.
If this sounds stale or straightforward, it isn’t. Jones eschews an easy tale of workers-vs-bosses. It’s cheekier than that, resonating perhaps more strongly as a satire of the far-left’s dream of Fully Automated Luxury Communism than it does as anti-capitalist polemic (although it is this too).
Other associations emerge depending at which angle you hold War With The Newts up to the light. See if you can spot them. The way the newt builders increase coastlines leads to a rise in sea-levels. (Gulp!) Upon the newts’ discovery, they are packed together in transport vessels and taken away to work. (Remember that?) Rabble-rousers scapegoat the newts for taking the jobs that once belonged to humans. (Familiar?) The further you search, the more there are. An argument over fishing policy leads to global catastrophe. (Too soon?)
Like Knaïve Theatre’s previous work Osama Bin Laden: The One Man Show, this sits in the tradition of theatre that shouldn’t work but somehow does. By rights, it should not get away with juggling all of these allusions, especially not whilst maintaining its multi-timelined plot and elaborate immersive staging. But it does so because it is not answerable to anything apart from its own premise: it realises that premise so completely and with such superb richness, that inevitably it touches a wider set of truths.
Its vital signs? I’d say this one’s a survivor.
War With The Newts is on at Summerhall until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.