Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 6 November 2015

The Notebook

Battersea Arts Centre ⋄ 3rd-14th November 2015

Page to stage.

Lydia Thomson
Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

I’m going to launch right in here, to what I believe to be the heart of the matter, and talk about the act of translating a book to the stage. I’m not doing so necessarily to discuss form, nor to discuss it in any kind of zeitgeisty context, but because I think the process of that adaptation is the very reason that Forced Entertainment’s adaptation of the novel by Hungarian writer Ágosta Kristóf is a stunning piece of theatre.

Directed by Tim Etchells, the production presents us with two grown men on a stage populated by two wooden chairs and a couple of bottles of water. The men are dressed identically, they move identically, and they speak either in unison or take turns. The story is of two young boys – identical twins – who are evacuated to their Grandmother’s farm in a Europe impoverished by World War II. The men on stage, Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon, take on the character of one twin each, and read the story from identical yellow notebooks.

The notebook of the title is something that the twins bought together with the intention of compiling within its pages accounts of their days and adventures. One of the rules of the notebook is that the stories in it are written as truths, devoid of opinion and emotional bias. The result is an emotionally cold retelling of the darkest corners of their young years – the death of family members, visions of bestiality, perversion, the burning of children and the horrors of the war.

Salient point number one: due to the poker-faced reading the audience’s imagination runs clear and sharp with images that I – personally – will struggle to forget. As such, it is when the performers stop to move their chairs, to take a sip of water, or to begin the next chapter, that there is a chilling collective recognition of the fragile humanity of it all.

The next crucial element is the delivery of the story. The performers are two grown men playing young twin boys. This disjunct brings to life the very sentiment that is instrumental to a lot of the discomfort of the piece: that the two boys are experiencing horrors beyond their young years. The difference in age creates a sorrowful image of the maturity which has been forced on the boys. Moreover to see the twins lifted off the page of the book, physicalised as separate people who move, think and speak as one, makes the idea of any kind of separation all the more heartbreaking.

The production plays on the golden notion of theatre as storytelling, stripped of spectacle and complication. Nonetheless, it is a testament to the book on which it is based and Forced Entertainment’s skills at adaptation that we stay with it until the end, for over two hours. The students who were sat next to me couldn’t quite believe how long they were going to have to sit without an interval, and indeed, many may consider it a feat of endurance. Makers of theatre are told never to put a clock on set because the audience will only be focused on how long they have been there, and how much longer is left. Unfortunately the notebooks from which Arthur and Lowden were reading have a similar effect, and I found myself watching how few pages were turned and how many remained.

Yet, there’s something in this sense of endurance which makes the ending all the richer. The content of what we have sat through has been undeniably moving, evocative, beautiful and devastating. And as the boys become real to us, the passing pages of their lives until the end of the notebook are, on reflection, something quite special. We watch the passing minutes of youth; we will a war to end. This stark piece of theatre reminds us that sometimes it is the moments in between chapters that are most poignant.

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Lydia Thomson

Lydia writes about theatre for her own blog and reviews local work for the Basingstoke Gazette and the Hampshire Chronicle. She was also a member of the reviewing team for LIFT 2014. As well as arts journalism, Lydia is a playwright and performance artist working in Hampshire and London. She is an associate artist of Proteus Theatre Company in Basingstoke and is part of the artist's network at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

The Notebook Show Info


Produced by Forced Entertainment

Directed by Tim Etchells

Cast includes Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon

Link https://www.bac.org.uk/

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