Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tyrell Jones: War With The Newts

By | Published on Sunday 7 October 2018

We first came into contact with the work of producing company Knaїve Theatre when we sent a reviewer along to their Osama Bin Laden show at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe.

Our writer was totally impressed by that, so when I heard that their latest show ‘War With The Newts’ (an edfringe 2018 success) was headed for a run at The Bunker Theatre, I naturally pricked up my ears.

To find out more about the show I arranged a chat with Tyrell Jones, director of the show and founder and co-artistic director of the company.

CM: Well, it’s certainly an interesting title. Please can you tell us what ‘War With The Newts’ is all about? What story does the show tell?
TJ: ‘War With The Newts’ is about an intelligent species of Newts who get exploited by us as a cheap substitute for human labour. The Newts eventually learn all they can about humankind and use our own techniques of domination and manipulation on us.

The Newts are a complex metaphor, sometimes deeply disturbing sometimes absurd. The war in the title is in a way a war with the worst of ourselves. The story is about a reckoning, a debt which must be paid. It is a story which asks an audience what if you had to account for the human cost of the wealth you now enjoy?

In that sense the show tells many stories, it is a story of colonialism, artificial intelligence, slavery, migrant labour. Every instance where we try to reduce the cost of ‘stuff’ there is an element of that narrative which is woven into this terrifying and absurd narrative of human greed.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
TJ: The show is vast in scope: the beauty of using such an absurd metaphor is that we have a wonderful opportunity to bring so much into focus. The show is about hierarchies, fundamentally, and how we make those hierarchies acceptable. How we find ways of sleeping easy with the injustices around us. It is about how politics, science and history conspire to persuade us that all we enact is really O.K. even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. It is about the need to take everything with a pinch of salt.

CM: It’s based on a novel, isn’t it? How did you go about creating an adaptation? Is it faithful to the book? Can you tell us a bit about the writer, and the context in which he wrote it?
TJ: Yes that is absolutely right. Karel Čapek wrote the novel in 1936, just as Europe teetered on the edge of crisis. He is a really fascinating writer, most famous for the invention of the word ‘Robot’ in 1920. He wrote a play called ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R)’ about the mass production of synthetic human beings who could work non stop and had no requirement for leisure time. The word Robot is derived from the Czech verb to work (robata).

‘War With The Newts’ took the themes of labour and exploitation present in R.U.R and merged them with themes of otherness, race and colonialism. It was a hard novel to adapt, there are entire chapters made up only of fictional scientific journals where all the jokes are in the footnotes. We boiled the arc of the narrative down to about eight moments which felt not only key to the story but which could resonate with a modern audience.

There is certainly a great deal of license taken, the politics had to be updated for a modern audience: conversations about these topics has moved on so much since 1936, it felt wrong not to include them. The final penultimate scene, for example, became very much about the arguments surrounding reparations for the slave trade – those ideas were there in the original, but we added to that drawing on the many incredible writers, thinkers and campaigners who have contributed to the debate.

So the adaptation is really a reimagining. It is still Čapek in spirit but we have certainly taken quite a bit of licence. In some cases we have included nods and references to his other works, particularly ‘R.U.R’, but I think he would have been happy to see how his incredible imaginative work could be staged for a 21st century audience which speaks to the politics of today.

CM: What made you want to create a show out of the story? Was the fact that it fit well with the current political climate to do with it?
TJ: It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say we are returning to the 1930s in our politics, but there is a resonance which is deeply uncomfortable. One of the most interesting things about Čapek as a writer is that almost all of his work ended with a siege.

He was very interested in how we might get things very badly wrong in some way which was catastrophic to human civilisation as we know it. Politically he was a liberal, in the centre, but was very worried about how we might unwittingly sow the seeds of our own destruction whether that be by developing terrifyingly powerful weapons or exploiting people in such a way that they no longer considered civilisation worth preserving.

He was frightened of populism but he looked to the causes too, the way a liberal establishment felt comfortable ignoring the needs of some until it was too late. I think we have that political vulnerability in common with the 1930’s, it is a time of great uncertainty where we stay blinkered at our peril.

CM: It sounds like it’s very much an experience, more than just theatre; can you explain the format of the show and what to expect from the manner of its presentation?
TJ: It is very much an experience. Overall I would describe the form as lightly immersive. It’s not interactive especially, but the audience are immersed fully in the world. The set and sound design is a total experience but they won’t be required to participate.

We wanted our audience to feel implicated in some way, to be sucked in, to be persuaded by the rhetoric and feel responsible somehow at the end. So we cast them as some of the last remaining humans on earth. They are picked up by a refugee vessel, they are processed and categorised for their fitness to work (human labour is back in fashion after the crisis you see).

They are welcomed by an entertainment system set up to make sure they understand that none of the terrible things which happened are the fault of their political establishment. The brainwashing doesn’t go so well however and there are other beings out there who have different ideas about how history should be presented. Suffice to say what begins light and fun becomes terrifying by the end.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the team who have worked on this with you?
TJ: The show is performed by Everal A Walsh, Nadi Kemp Sayfi and Sam Redway. All really talented actors who are also exceptional creators in their own right. They all helped create the show, supported by writing, and gave me thoughts and ideas all along the way.

Sam is also the co-Artistic Director of Knaїve Theatre along with me. As well as acting Sam has been the production manager, one of two dramaturgs and stage manager. He is a multi-talented man who keeps this show on the road.

We also worked with Hannah Sibai, a hugely prolific and talented theatre designer who really enjoys immersing the audience in her design. The man behind the music and sound was Robert Bentall, he is an contemporary classical and electronic musician and has created the fully immersive sound world for the show. It is multi- directional and hugely complex, it really places the audience within the story and can sometimes be quite an overwhelming experience.

Dan Valentine has been operating the sound as well as calibrating it with the various different speaker systems we encounter on tour. He has now perfected the art of making sure everyone’s bum vibrates when the big subs come in, its not hard to believe you are on a ship when that happens.

Lastly we worked with an exceptionally talented video design team, Luca Rudlin and Richard Williams who together are People Staring, a Manchester based film company, as well as director and dramaturg Matthew Xia (former associate artistic director at the royal exchange) who supported us all the way through with his theatre wisdom.

It is quite a team and every single member has been indispensable.

CM: Can you tell us about Knaïve Theatre – when and why was it set up, and by whom? What are the company’s aims?
TJ: Knaïve Theatre was set up by Sam Redway and I in 2015. We both wanted to make work which was unapologetically political, so the company was born out of that. We wanted to make theatre which connects, challenges and empowers its audience. We try and ask the audience difficult questions, with no easy answers. We are particularly interested in political & immersive theatre and the community around us. We make theatre across a range of styles and genres. We experiment to find new ways of affecting, transporting and transforming ourselves and our audience.

CM: What are your ambitions for the future?
TJ: We want to establish ourselves as a company which makes contemporary, challenging, accessible political theatre which deals with the urgent and uncomfortable conversations of the moment. We also want to continue experimenting with the fusion of technology and theatre.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after the London run?
TJ: It is quite a year for us, we have a lot on. First off we are collaborating with Manchester Camerata on an Antarctic Symphony written by Sam’s wife Laura Bowler. Sam and I are creating an education project which works in tandem with the concert.

Then in February Sam and I fly to Australia and New Zealand for a 3 month tour of our previous show ‘Bin Laden: The One Man Show’. Then we are back in London in July to collaborate on an Opera by Laura Bowler and Edward Bond called ‘Early Morning’.

We have a big theatre show in the pipeline too, but that is very early days… suffice to say it will definitely be playing with multi-directional sound again and we think it will an epic about humankind’s relationship with technology. That won’t be till 2020 – but watch this space.

‘War With The Newts’ is on at The Bunker theatre from 9-27 Oct, see the venue website here for more info and to book tickets.

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