Awe and wonder: Forced Entertainment, masters of the fragmented narrative, shock us with a linear narrative based on a novel – The Notebook, by award-winning Hungarian-Swiss author Agota Kristof, first published in Paris as Le Grand Cahier. And what a corker of a story: a reflection on the terrors of war, on the effect of war and its aftermath on civilian populations, and on morality in the face of violence, which is staged with stunningly beautiful simplicity – theatre stripped back to its bare essentials.
Two little boys, unnamed twins who think, act and talk as one person, arrive from the Big Town. They are clean and combed, dressed in white shirts and patent leather shoes. Their mother is taking them to live with their grandmother, known locally as ‘the witch’, as the country they live in is at war and it is deemed safer for them to stay with her in the countryside. The grandmother has never met these ‘sons of a bitch’ so has little interest in looking after them– but begrudgingly takes them in. The boys are told that they have to work to eat, and at first they refuse, but after a few days sleeping in the garden and living on raw vegetables, they acquiesce. ‘Oh, so you feel sorry for me now!’ says the grandmother as they help her haul her barrow along the track to market. ‘No’ say the boys, answering (as always) in unison ‘ We didn’t feel sorry, we felt ashamed’. This moment, the arrival of shame, marks the dawning of morality. As the war progresses, the challenges to the boys’ moral code become ever-more complex as bestiality, blackmail, sexual abuse, rape, murder, assisted suicide, sacrifice of others versus personal survival, deportation of undesirables, and the ransacking of the bodies of eyeless soldiers all present themselves as opportunities to test them. What is so beautifully realised theatrically is that we are so totally taken into the closed world of the boys’ terrifying logic and intelligence that we unequivocally understand and support every decision they make.
We are in fairy-tale mode here: a world of archetypes (the witch, the soldier, the priest, the housekeeper, the hare-lipped girl) living in an unnamed country in which there are occupiers and liberators – the liberators proving to be more terrible than the occupiers. Agota Kristof’s novel names her child protagonists, and makes it clear that the story is that of her homeland, Hungary. Forced Entertainment make the dramaturgical decision to remove the names and move it into a universal tale that could be any place in any time – a fable of war past, present and future. The details are depressingly familiar.
The story is told by two male actors dressed in matching mouse-grey suits and red woolly jumpers, clutching big exercise books, which they read from. The stage is bare, furnished only with two dark-wood chairs. Two hours go by in a flash. We sit riveted as the tale unfolds, pictures painted purely through the power of words. Words that, in accordance with the closed world of the twins depicted, follow the rules of the boys’ own notebook compositions: ‘the faithful depiction of facts… what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do’. Nouns and verbs: the chickens have their legs tied together to be taken to market; the boys smell of mushrooms, mould, manure. No qualifiers needed – adjectives are scorned. Fact: grandmother wears no underpants; lifts her skirt and pisses wherever she is. Fact: the foreign officer asks the boys to piss on him. There is no comment offered on these or any other facts relayed to us. Emotions are to be avoided – although they creep in under the door: ‘Loving a walnut is not the same as loving our mother’ they say, and you feel their young hearts breaking. To counteract this, they train themselves in emotional toughness by calling each other names, then endearments, to break the power of words. Pig, demon, darling, lover – words, just words, that will never again hurt or charm.
Staging a novel might be new for Forced Entertainment, but The Notebook is a classic FE show. First, there’s the power of words, delivered without unnecessary emoting: no (over) acting required. Think Speak Bitterness, for example, or the more recent Tomorrow’s Parties. I’m reminded of the advice that both Rudolf Steiner and Bruno Bettleheim gave on the reading or telling of fairy tales: the storyteller stays neutral, presents the words; the listener can absorb the horror and the moral of the story if they aren’t being terrorised by the teller of the tale. Next there’s the staging. Chairs, of course, have played a crucial role in many of the company’s productions. And there’s the actors: the story is held perfectly by Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon, who like the twins in the story have stood side-by-side reciting words together for decades: two-handers that eschew dialogue in favour of alternating storytelling direct to audience are a staple of the company’s work. Then there’s the tighter-than-tight dramatic structure: although the show appears to be very simply staged, the space and everything in it is choreographed with precision. The beginnings and endings of scenes are denoted by the moving of a chair, or by one or both actors standing up or sitting down or walking across the space. As the piece progresses, and the possibility of division of the seemingly indivisible twosome begins to suggest itself, it is more likely that the actors will not be identically posed, holding their exercise books in a different way, sitting or standing with the suggestion of a separate identity. Occasionally there is a subtle change of lighting state – turquoise and straw-white lights giving a bright but slightly other-worldly feel to the performance space. I should also mention that FE’s incorrigible sense of subversive humour is as strong as ever– comedy shining a light on even the darkest of moments. Great theatre, and such a delight to see Forced Entertainment finding new ways of working after thirty years of success offering a variety of uses of enchantment.
The Notebook is presented at BAC as part of LIFT, and in tandem with After a War, a series of immersive performances and installations, co-curated by Forced Entertainment’s artistic director Tim Etchells and LIFT’s Mark Ball, which features work by Stan’s Café, Lola Arias, Inua Ellams, The Tiger Lillies, and Tim Etchells, amongst many other artists.