After I saw Quizoola! last year, I quickly realised that Forced Entertainment aren’t your traditional theatre company. In fact, they’re as far from traditional as I think I’ve ever come across. So when it was suggested to me that I go see another of their shows – The Notebook, part of this year’s LIFT festival – I thought “as long as it’s shorter than 12 hours, it might well be very interesting”. And I was definitely not disappointed. Set in the beautiful Council Chambers at the Battersea Arts Centre (oh how I love reclaimed old buildings), this play is a disturbing but intricately simple production.
Based on the 1986 novel by Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf, it follows twin brothers evacuated to their impoverished Grandmother’s during World War Two. In an unspecified central European country, the boys uncover secrets, explore their surroundings, and attempt to understand the world around them in an increasingly off-kilter and matter of fact way.
The format of placing two actors on stage, in perfect symmetry, each reading from the eponymous object, would always run the risk of seeming rather dry. I admit that during the first paragraph I wondered whether this would be another longitudinal play that I’d have to suffer through – however, I was happily proved wrong. At the first description of Grandmother, we were laughing, and I realised I was in for something special. The structure didn’t differ that much during the 130minute piece (with no break I might add) – bar a few movements of chairs and just one occasion of actual ‘staging’, Robert Arthur and Richard Lowdon remained resolute in their story and frame.
It is in its simplicity that The Notebook holds its power. Throughout the piece I was engaged, and could probably draw Grandmother’s house if asked, complete with a blueprint of room layouts – testament to Kristóf’s writing. But Artistic Director Tim Etchells, who led the company-devised performance, did well to focus on the complexity of the words. The temptation could have been to fully portray what the boys went through, but it is the exact opposite that makes it such a poignant piece. At times we were laughing out loud; at others we were silent with grimaces on our brows and hands to our mouths. The experiences explained were done so in such a cold, unemotional way – the ‘notebook’ being the rule-laden composition exercises the boys set themselves to maintain their studies – that we were left wondering how many events like these really took place during the war, and how many more we will never even contemplate.
By turns heart warming, heart wrenching, and just downright uncomfortable, The Notebook is a powerful piece of theatre. Do not underestimate the effect of minimalist sets, wooden chairs, and red knitted jumpers. Nor that of Forced Entertainment to leave your mind fried.