Tuesday 3 November 2015

The Notebook – (Forced Entertainment) Contact, Manchester

[seen 22/10/15]

Two identically-dressed men walk onto a flat wooden rectangle. They each bring a chair and a book. They sit on the chairs, nod at each other, open the books and begin to read.

The Notebook is a short book by Agota Kristóf about two pre-pubescent twin boys who are sent to live in the countryside with their grandmother.

Forced Entertainment’s version is the second adaptation of The Notebook we’ve seen this year (the link is to a review of first). Kristóf is Hungarian, but the country in which it is set could be any number of Nazi-occupied countries in Eastern Europe.

One of the first things that happens in the story is that the boys acquire themselves a notebook and set themselves rules for writing about things they see and do. One of the rules they make for themselves regarding their writing is to ban their own value judgements. They can observe the reactions of others, but do not add their own. They also only use the first person plural to talk about what they do. Perhaps sometimes “one of us does (a) and one of us does (b)” but the one always relates to the *us*.

[it was also hilarious to me that I first saw The Notebook the night after my piece for the Guardian about staging books was published, since it pretty much exactly does what I suggest is a brilliant idea, brilliantly.]

We wanted to know how some information about the piece so we asked the piece’s director Tim Etchells three or four questions. These are his [off-the-cuff] answers:

“We started with the whole text but that ran to four hours. So we cut around 40%, but the architecture remains exactly the same. Nothing added at all no - didn’t feel any desire to do that. A few translation improvements. The only ‘addition’ is at the very end where we added a few lines because it's otherwise so abrupt*. So we ‘added’ a few lines just a small small space of decompression. There were many many bits** that we were forced to cut. Given the minimalism of our approach we wanted to keep it tight time-wise.".

“I think we recognised something in her style - this language as picture-making strategy. Or language as virtual theatre/cinema. The bluntness and simplicity that's in fact really complex and dynamic.*** So it connected to things we’d been working on. I think it was same with out only other adaptation – Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain. No urge to dramatise. Just to put the act of narration into a public space; to socialise its problem, so to speak.”

[In line with my attempt to follow the rules of the notebook/The Notebook, I’ve removed the three emotional value judgements here and put them at the bottom, as indicated.]

The audience is impressed by the way Richard Lowdon and Robin Arthur speak in chorus together. It is plainly a difficult trick and to do it for 90+ minutes (though not solidly) and to make it look so easy pleases the audience.

[But there is complexity too. Why are they twins? What does it symbolise? I was reminded of the twins of Mark Ravenhill’s (also East European-exploring) Over There. I was reminded of the fearsome choruses of Karin Beier’s Das Werk. Even without being offered specific answers, it communicates a certain unplaceable feeling. In terms of literature (the source is a European novel after all) I was also reminded of the pregnant-but-unplaceable, menacing symbolism of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum.]

What is strange about the piece – something that I’ve realised, trying to mirror the form with this content so far – is that there’s a real disconnect between the apparent minimalism of the production, plus the apparently blank tone of the observations, and the actual effect that the whole has. *Of course* there’s the small matter of The Notebook being a work of literature which will have been written and re-written until perfected, and I’m just dashing this off. And there’s the fact that Kristóf gets to shape her narrative, where I am reporting facts. But, in terms of writing alone, the spark here comes from precisely the disjuncture (and knowing “innocence”) between the boys’ observations and the things they observe. The boys harden themselves against physical pain, against emotional pain, against shock. Not with complete success: the inhumanity of the Holocaust defeats even these detached observers of bestiality: but that is their attempt.

But, somewhere between the boys’ attempt, the staging of it, and the reception of this by the audience, a kind of alchemy takes place whereby we become all the more engaged and involved in just the simple progress of the story itself. And it is a beautifully, beautifully crafted story. It feels pregnant with allegory. I’m perhaps not familiar enough with Hungarian history to understand the wider points of the allegory, if there is one, but there is enough just in the story and the depths that explores to make this a compelling two hours viewing. And the sense that there’s more underneath it all, if only you keep digging at it and thinking about it is also somehow incredibly rewarding.

* it works brilliantly in the novel but in run-throughs it was always so so so abrupt.

** we loved

*** For me also the very performative thing of the impossible ‘two as one’ – you feel that in the book. But I just wanted to make it happen in real time on real bodies. That impossible narration.

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