Features Published 25 June 2015

Bedtime Stories, and More from the Malta Festival

Rebecca Jacobson on Forced Entertainment's The Notebook and other highlights of the Poznan theatre festival
Rebecca Jacobson

In a recent interview with Terry Gross, Israeli author Etgar Keret described the bedtime stories his father used to tell him. Keret’s father, a Holocaust survivor, said he was lousy at invention, so he told his son tales about the things he knew. And because he deemed his wartime experiences—which included nearly two years in a hole—too grim, he edged toward lighter subject matter: prostitutes, mafia bosses, alcoholics.

“These stories would be amazing and there was sometimes violence in them, many extreme things, but at the same time, they were full of love for mankind and even the people who would do those extreme things, you would still understand them and like them,” Keret said to Gross. “Those stories, for me, were always the model for the function of stories and storytelling in our lives—the idea is that you kind of look reality straight in the face, it doesn’t matter how ugly it is, and you try to find humanity in it, you try to find beauty in it, you try to find hope in it.”

I had to think of Keret’s father and his narrative lullabies during Forced Entertainment’s The Notebook. Based on Agota Kristof’s novel about twin boys living in the Hungarian countryside during World War II, The Notebook features two actors on a nearly bare stage, reading from simple bound volumes. Their story has more than a little violence, more than a few extreme things.

The boys’ grandmother might have poisoned her husband, and she refers, without fail, to her grandsons as “sons of a bitch.” There’s an abusive parish priest. There’s poverty and blackmail and rape and murder. But, like Keret’s father, the twins have a commitment to looking reality straight in the face. They believe in precision, accuracy and objectivity: They won’t say they “love walnuts.” Rather: “We eat a lot of walnuts.” The word “love” is too vague and unreliable for them.

And humanity? Beauty? Hope? You might have to look a little harder, but I think there are some of those things, too, even as the stories grow increasingly harsh. These boys might be dispassionate, but they’re not exactly mean. They follow a clear moral code, necessary for survival during wartime, and they don’t judge those around them. It’s as refreshing as it is chilly.

As the unnamed twins, Richard Lowdon and Robin Arthur are dressed identically in gray suits, maroon cable-knit sweaters and black wire-framed glasses. Both have the clear, impassive delivery of audiobook narrators—assured but unassuming. Their language is unsentimental and formal, as if pulled from a textbook about proper English. Grandmother is always called “grandmother.” They often speak in unison. They don’t smile, even during the moments of (bleak) humor. Blocking is minimal: They sit on wooden chairs, or stand side-by-side near the front of the stage, feet slightly turned out, like ballet dancers in first position. There’s very little gesture. As a result, pauses carry enormous weight—they’re the kinds of silences that make you hold your breath, as if that might change the nature of what’s about to spill from their lips. The effect is that of being let in on a series of secrets, yet also being held at a cautious arm’s length. Despite the precision of description—the boys smell of “manure, fish, grass, mushrooms, cheese, mud, sweat, clay, feces, urine and mould”—The Notebook never definitively places us in Hungary. It never specifies the language spoken by the various occupying troops, or gives the exact year. There’s a sense this story could be playing out almost anywhere, at almost anytime, and that’s one of its immense powers. How does war affect the young? What sort of logic do children develop to explain such horrors? Where is the line between courage and cruelty?

As the two hours unfold, The Notebook often feels like a bedtime story. But you’re unlikely to sleep easy afterwards.

***

Also at the Malta Festival, Forced Entertainment put up another talky two-hander, likewise performed on a bare-bones stage with minimal blocking. Tomorrow’s Parties, which premiered in Switzerland in 2011, features two performers (in this case, Cathy Naden and Robin Arthur) trading predictions for the future. “In the future,” they say, we will have screwdrivers for hands, or many of us will share one body, or all the animals will go extinct, or sex will be a nostalgic thing practiced mostly by old people. For every one of these statements, there’s a counter-statement: or this, or that, or the other. It’s frequently funny (let’s turn the whole world into a medieval theme park with armoured knights and fire-breathing dragons!) but also heartbreaking: a reflection on the world’s incalculable wonders as well as its inevitable limitations.

Deborah Pearson's The Future Show

Deborah Pearson’s The Future Show

In her solo piece The Future Show, Deborah Pearson offers her own take on what’s to come. Sitting at a table on an otherwise empty stage, Mike Daisey-style, Pearson begins by predicting what will happen directly after her show ends—small things, like the photograph we’ll notice in the lobby or the niceties we’ll exchange. (She rewrites a good chunk of the show each time she performs it.) From there, she travels farther into the future, focusing on what might unfold in her own life. Some of this feels deeply consequential, like the repeated mentions of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other moments are wispy and fleeting. And a few bits, like whether she’ll complete her PhD thesis or how she hides a pair of (very sharp!) scissors underneath a book by (oof) Roland Barthes, struck me as frustratingly insular or indulgent. But that’s life, right? Huge and glorious at times, sad or petty or navel-gazing at others. And Pearson is a lovely, compelling performer, and so you allow her those moments, just like you do a good friend (even if you only keep listening because you know they’ll have to return the favor next time you’re rattling on).

A piece with a lot of movement and a lot of people, meanwhile, was Schwalbe is looking for crowds. Dutch theatre collective Schwalbe—formed in 2008 by performers who met during their mime studies in Amsterdam—make work characterized by both robust physicality and stripped-down simplicity.

Their first piece, Save Them, was largely about working themselves into a sweat. They also sweat a lot during the (C02-neutral!) Schwalbe performs on their own, in which they powered the theatre lighting by furiously pedaling mechanical bikes. In Schwalbe is looking for crowds, a few dozen people—some Schwalbe members but mostly locals, including a 94-year-old man (!)—walk and run in a circle. For an hour. And that’s about it. But it’s also so much more. For one, it’s visually hypnotic. (It helps that the Poznan performances took place in a former slaughterhouse, the peeling paint and exposed brick providing instant atmosphere.) And, as in many non-narrative pieces, it’s fascinating to observe how your own thoughts spin and swirl around. I found myself admiring one performer’s dress, and disdaining another’s T-shirt (“I’m disturbingly beautiful,” it read, in all caps). I marveled at one man’s height. I wondered why a few of were wearing bum bags. (Pay close attention towards the end.) I wondered if any of them smoked. I wondered if they felt dizzy. I wondered how much they’d rehearsed. I wondered if someone would fell over. And what I liked, perhaps most of all, was that I never worried if I was paying it “proper” attention: It’s an incredibly liberating piece in that way. And yet, for all my silly ruminations, the show remained with me long after it ended—like how after you get off a boat and, as you try to fall asleep that night, still feel yourself lilting, lilting, lilting.

Main image: Hugo Glendining 

The Malta Festival runs from 8th-28th June 2015 in Poznan, Poland.

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