based on the book by Ágota Kristóf
at Battersea Arts Centre, Wednesday 25th June 2014
For about the first twenty minutes of The Notebook, the show – in all honesty – feels a bit like a cop-out. Two performers – Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon – enter from a back door, each armed with a brown A4 notebook and dressed in incidental red jumpers and grey suits. They stand facing us, open their books, and begin reading. Sometimes, as when announcing a new chapter or highlighting a point, they speak in unison, but otherwise they speak in quick succession, recounting a story of two twins evacuated to their grandmother’s house in Hungary during the Second World War. With every new chapter, their positions shift slightly, but otherwise the same pattern is followed all the way through.
The reason why The Notebook feels like a bit of a cop-out at its opening is that the story – based on a novel by Ágota Kristóf – is so rich with character and detail that our spoiled, imagistic minds want something more. You want to see the twins and their new, dark lifestyle in the country. You want to hear their grandmother shouting obscenities. You want to experience the life of this small, troubled town.
And then you do.
Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, as your mind begins to drift, the whole thing materialises. Though Lowdon and Arthur speak the lines in a dispassionate voice, the speeches suddenly take on meanings far greater than first imagined, and you begin to build pictures based on their descriptions. If anything, we need the first twenty minutes or so to clear our minds of expectations and ideas so that they can subsequently be filled with a richly painted picture of life during wartime. Paradoxically, you need to stop engaging in order to fully engage.
The twins embody a lost innocence and a generation given up by their parents, with the disturbing scenes recounted with such lack of emotion that its almost tragic. They tell a joke in the same way they describe witnessing a death, with their desire to speak in objective fact making their narrative all the more troubling. At least when witnessing violence on stage, you can close your eyes; here, as with The Author, we have only ourselves to blame for creating these mental images.
This is a tale of how war dehumanises and brutalises, and how the structures of commerce are inextricably linked to all aspects of our very existence. From the beginning of their time with their grandmother, the twins find ways of cheating the system and realise that in order to survive they must work together to earn food and money. Kristóf’s story even touches on the way in which war is simply the endpoint of capitalism, which is a system so indiscriminate of ethics that, were it to have its own way with no interference, world war would be a constant. Sex doesn’t sell nearly as much as war.
What’s so refreshing about The Notebook is that all this rich substance is found within an aesthetic and style typical of Forced Entertainment, with its focus on performance and modes of storytelling. There’s a semi-improvised feel to proceedings, and it’s an unsurprising choice of text considering how the boys view the world around them; “Words that define feelings are very vague,” says one, “It is better to avoid using them”. At one point, they even discuss the times they spent performing dramas, but the only thing differentiating this moment is that one chair is at an angle; everything else is left to the imagination.
I have to admit a slight discomfort with the heavy focus on war this year – both at LIFT and elsewhere. Yes, it’s the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, but there’s a danger that much of the art made about the subject errs on the side of nostalgia and glorifies rather than challenges our preconceptions. Rather than looking back, major anniversaries should allow us to ask questions about our current attitudes to war, demonstrating the ways we can hold those in power to account for not learning from past mistakes. Fortunately, with its ambiguous ending which paints a dark picture of a ‘liberated’ Hungary, The Notebook never falls into this trap, and asks us to constantly consider what comes next. Beneath the emotional tragedy, there’s also a sharp intellectual critique, and the simple staging allows these multiple meanings to shine through.