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Theatre Review Karel Capek old fears revisited

by CALUM BARNES

War With the Newts
Summerhall Basement
Edinburgh
 

Through a plastic curtain we are ushered in one by one for processing — a brief questioning, a torch flashed in our eyes, wrist stamped then guided by an overly friendly crew member to our seats, an orange crate, in the claustrophobic hull of Captain Von Toch’s ship.

We are greeted by the digital avatars of the nebulous yet nefarious organisation “The Syndicate” who introduce a series of “entertainment protocols” narrating how we have arrived at the present war with the newts.

Tyrell Jones’s timely adaptation of Karel Capek’s 1936 novel, a surreal yet savage satire on the depredations of global capitalism and the rise of fascism, brings the polysemic allegory to the post-Brexit, global-warming scorched present.

Inhabiting several roles each, the three-person ensemble adroitly dramatises historical vignettes — the original discovery of the newts and their unique abilities by Captain Von Toch to their eventual revolution against their exploitation.

These entertainment protocols, prone to file corruption, often take different forms — the corporate presentation of The Syndicate detailing how the “semi-autonomous techno-species” is key to post-Brexit prosperity, the actors delivering the absurd corporate jargon with delightful aplomb.

The newts are notable in their absence throughout, stashed away in the teetering piles of orange crates that comprise the set, yet they still emerge as a multifaceted metaphor for various threats to the British socioeconomic order — automation, the refugee crisis, environmental destruction and imperial reparations.

The initial opening seemed to promise a more immersive production that never materialised. The on-board entertainment is meant to be pacifying yet educational, but it cannot quite mask the crisis that the “Newt Age” has wrought upon the country.

Refracting the crisis through Brexit might parochialise the global scope of Capek’s novel but, in an age of resurgent nationalism across Europe, its themes will be recognisable across the continent.
 

Knaive Theatre’s adaptation is admirably ambitious, managing to be both humorous yet unsettling but above all a vital and necessary play of ideas which speaks to the urgency of the current political moment.

Ends August 26 2018. Box Office festival18.summerhall.co.uk

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