War With The Newts – Review Royal Exchange Manchester

I mistakenly thought that at some point I’d be subjected to newts when I went to see the much appreciated War With The Newts from the mercurial minds of Knaïve Theatre. After all there’s newts in the title and most marketing paraphernalia had these weird humanoid newts on them. There were no newts – but that didn’t matter for Knaïve Theatre’s gem of a production had me totally and utterly transfixed.

Based on the novel from Karel Capek’s sci-fi politically infused novel War With the Salamanders, this new immersive experience from Knaïve Theatre, with live surround sound installation by sonic artist Robert Bentall, has become the talk of the town. The premise concerns the discovery of an intelligent breed of newts, who are at first enslaved and exploited. They eventually evolve and acquire human knowledge and rebel, leading to a global war for supremacy.

Written and directed by Tyrrell Jones, War with the Newts has garnered a horde of highly impressive reviews. The production formed the centerpiece to this summer’s Waterside Festival and they have done the obligatory stint in Edinburgh where the fringe audience were up in rapture.

The immersive feel to the show starts right at the beginning, you are classified, stamped (I got stamped with Oddjobs, which I thought was a particular highlight of the show) and told that everything is going to be alright as you are shown to your seat. Of course I am thinking like all good Star Trek episodes, when they beam down to the surface of the planet to radio that everything is going to be alright, that is isn’t going to be alright at all!

Our seats are on an oyster-dredging vessel. Three virtual hosts are your guides on the ship and through a series of protocols relay the history of how humans came to be festering in caves waiting for ships like the one we are sat in to rescue them from the webbed clutches of the newts.

Playing the series of characters are Everal A Walsh, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Sam Redway. They regale us at first to how the newts were discovered and how they began to evolve. They excellently ratchet up the tension with each passing scene, from the discovery to the unpleasant realisation that the newts had become the dominant species on earth. Jones has done a fine job to take Capek’s book and create a play that allows the analogies inherent in the text to emerge on stage.

Of course it is the political analogies what makes this play such a crowd pleaser. It seems apt that Capek’s 1930’s satirical novel is ripe to be updated as we seem to be living through similar political chaos and therefore the narratives are not too dissimilar. Indeed much of Capek’s novel concerned the turmoil felt in Europe at the time, whilst today we are faced with similar Brexit obsessed news. There are quite a few subtle political themes here under the microscope. Immigration. Colonialism. Capitalism.

Whilst it is easy to wax lyrical about how Knaïve Theatre’s play is one big metaphor, it would be remiss not to talk about how staged this production is. The set is designed wonderfully claustrophobic that you feel the palpable tension within the actor’s scenes. The lighting and mood music adds to the ambience. All in all Knaïve Theatre and Tyrell Jones have produced something that lives long in the memory and has us asking some searching questions about the world we live in today.

Verdict: A utterly gripping portrayal of how a new species takes over the world. Immersive, engaging and ultimately utterly frightening.

What: War With The Newts
Where: Royal Exchange
When: 4th October 2018

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