Last Updated on 14th October 2018
Julian Eaves reviews Knaive Theatre’s production of War With The Newts now playing at The Bunker Theatre.
Karel Capek has found his way into the heart of British theatre by being the co-author, along with his brother Josef, of the brilliant satirical bestiary known here as ‘The Insect Play’. Attempts have also been made to habilitate some of their other works: some success was achieved with the science-fiction fable, ‘R.U.R.’ (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’), which played in the West End with Ian Carmichael no less, but none of his other creations seem to have landed. Despite several attempts being made to find a place for this one, a novel, several times dramatised, musicalised, and wot not, no-one has yet found a way to make it stick. Undeterred, new outfit Knaive Theatre have launched a punchy, contemporary adaptation, re-locating the action in the choppy waters surrounding Brexitland, and, having done well – they and several quotes from reviews tell us they did – on the Edinburgh Fringe, it is now installed for a run at the moderne, hipster-friendly subterranean lair of the Bunker tribe.
Tyrrell Jones is the adapter here, who – in an act of unabashed bravery – also directs. And there, dear reader possibly begins a source of this production’s salient troubles. While Jones packs in a right mish-mosh of possibilities (as the Divine Miss M used to say), I am not quite sure that he yet has the capacity to stand back and really think hard about what actually works. Therefore, despite the presence of no fewer than two dramaturgs (Matthew Xia and Sam Redway), we never quite get a sense that all his clever theatrical tricks add up to anything more than a showcase for imaginative and talented drama students, trying out everything they can think of, and curious to find out what kind of effects, if any, they succeed in having in live performance. It’s interesting, intermittently engaging, but in my view, a great distance yet from making the kind of sense their advertising lays claim to.
Of course, the word from Edinburgh is that they are wonderful. The reviewers there have told them so. Perhaps the audiences there were charmed. But Edinburgh is a very long way, critically and experientially, from London. Time and again one finds these celebrated productions from Caledonia arriving in town, to be turned, as if by some terrible local magic, into rather chaotic and not very well conceived messes. Why? I have not the slightest idea. Could it be that different standards apply up there compared to down here?
Never mind. One can always admire the cast. There are just three of them, but they work their wellingtons off to make the most of a clutch of varied and distinct roles. Outstanding is Everal A Walsh, who makes a rich feast out of his half-dozen different characterisations: his voice is a sublime instrument and his use of physicality and his face is brilliantly well judged: this is a man who really deserves a much more established position in our theatre: I think I will remember his performance for ever. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, as the only woman in the troupe, has five parts to fill, and she does so with increasing confidence as the event progresses, becoming more relaxed and less stiff on stage: I am quite sure we will see and hear a lot more of her in the coming years. Sam Redway, co-dramaturg, also acts and is good in what he does, but essentially he has two modes: silent and proletarian, and silent and toff; he does, however, get the best laugh of the evening (and there are not that many, beyond rather ‘knowing’ chuckles), by emerging from a tank wearing a pair of union jack boxers. When a production has to rely on such cheap effects for its biggest reactions, you know it is in trouble.
But a lot of people have put a weight behind this enterprise. The ‘programme’ hand-out sheet contains a hefty list of ‘Thanks to…’, in which some very respectable names appear. Perhaps partly thanks to this list, Hannah Sibai’s impressive design is doubtless achieved on a threadbare budget, but she makes some strong and memorable statements with the means at her disposal and is particularly successful in dressing the actors: she has the right eye for theatre. Lighting is not credited – even though the show makes extensive use of it – nor is the creator/s of the ingenious video clips, so maybe those are all down to the creative Sibai too? If so, all the more credit to her! But the composer (who borrows heavily from pre-existing recordings), Rob Bentall, does get a credit, and his (is it his?) rehashing of ‘Sailing By’ is one of the most charming effects in this entertainment. The Associate Sound Designer is Dan Valentine, who does a lot to fill up gaps left by the jerky non-sequiturs in the script.
I do not know if Mr Jones has studied the previous incarnations of this work on the British (or any other) stage. Whether he has or not, although he only takes up 70 minutes of your time to show you his version, he makes those minutes seem very, very, very long indeed. With a few more runs and lots of notes, the production will surely pick up speed and lightness. I hope so. In the meantime, all I can say is that what I saw, while fascinating in many ways, isn’t yet quite a fully realised piece. Maybe it will be soon. Best of Brexit British to all concerned!
Until 27 October 2018