War With The Newts

Karel Čapek
Knaïve Theatre
Summerhall
to

Karel Čapek wrote the original satirical sci-fi classic novel entitled War With The Newts in 1935 in response to growing popularism and nationalism across Europe. In particular, the rise of the Nazis caused considerable anxiety in his native Czechoslovakia about German expansionism, justifiably so as it turned out.

It has been adapted several times and one can understand the attraction. We are once again drawn into the whirlwind of popularism amid demogogues seeking to gain power by ‘othering’, scapegoating and generally sowing false divisions among a populace this time suffering under austerity measures and the severe and very real threat of climate change and mass extinction.

This adaptation for stage takes us into the hull of a former oyster dredger, turned rescue vessel, where we are told by robots we are survivors of human annhilation at the hands of a race of intelligent newts. Some initial interactions with doctors and aid workers who shine lights into our eyes and put a stamp on our hands, inquiring about our well-being, give the impression the performance will be more interactive than it turns out to be.

We are seated on boxes, treated to computer-generated guides and told that what we will be witnessing is a re-enactment of the history of the vessel and our species’ demise at the hands of the newts. And it transpires some of the archives have been tampered with and suppressed. So far so good as far as some modern parallels go.

We are treated to the history, the captain who discovers the hitherto unknown species of newts, capable of learning to carry out human chores, speak human language, mimic our ways. The entrepreneur who puts them to use, their enslavement, the construction of underwater cities which they eventually take over for their own use, and subsequently their encroachment on our coastlines for their building projects, their demands for land (the UK being evacuated on agreement between the newts and the UN envoy), and so on. It attempts to show worker dissatisfaction, philanthropy gone wrong and a capitalist oligarchy in the making.

However, this adaptation is problematical. While the current growth of neo-fascism is undeniable, as is the link between Brexit and popularism, the flooding and storms we are shown on newsreel footage are caused by melting glaciers and climate change, not newts, nor fascism, and if there is anything likely to bring about the end of our species it is more likely to be the 6th Mass Extinction of species not the take-over of one species by another.

This is a worthy attempt to confront the crucial issues of our present and the bleakness of our future if we fail to act. The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh is one of the few asking some essential questions about why the arts are failing to take the issues inherent on global warming on board, and I have been thinking about this while looking through the Fringe Festival programme.

However, this adaptation remains too close to Čapek's original, tries to draw too many issues into a single hour and in doing so obscures the central issue: the threat we have to unite as a species to face.

Jackie Fletcher