Nearly everyday we see news of refugees fleeing war torn lands in search of safety abroad. No matter how the press spins objective facts to suit their own agenda and their readers’ opinions, the perspective of these events unfailingly separates “them” from “us”. These people running for their lives are The Other that we must either keep out or allow in. It’s all very black and white, heavily doused with an air of superiority; we either look down on them as vermin that need controlling or as victims that need handling with kid gloves. We never really hear from these refugees, though. It’s all, “me, me, me” and a flamboyant display of either virtue or condemnation.
The Notebook, with a stark simplicity that forces the audience to sit and listen for two unrelenting hours, slowly unpacks the horrors of war that drives people to flee from a first person perspective. It makes us take the focus off ourselves for once and genuinely listen to the stories of those in need. Told by nameless twin boys moved to their grandmother’s home in the Hungarian countryside, they come of age during World War II, the subsequent Russian occupation and descent of the Iron Curtain. Adapted from Agota Kristóf’s novel of the same name, Forced Entertainment strips the story down to a text that’s read from thick notebooks by two identically dressed actors (Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon) who represent the boys. This is storytelling in its most raw, boiled down form, with language being almost the sole vehicle of communication.
The set is two wooden chairs and the lighting rarely changes. There isn’t much to look at, which makes this show a tough one for those used to constant visual stimulation in both real and theatrical worlds. There were times I internally railed against the form, like a kid with ADD in a lesson that lasts more than three seconds. One woman walked out part way through. Others fidgeted and checked their watches. We just aren’t used to sitting down and just listening for a couple of hours anymore. The story is unquestionably riveting, though. Through use of precisely timed delivery, often in unison, childhood innocence breaks down and is eventually destroyed, despite their mother’s attempts to protect it. Their grandmother’s house is hardly a haven, and they must resort to deplorable behaviour to eek out a sub-par existence even though the bombs are a distant threat. It’s understandable though, considering the abuse they endure from their grandmother, the general public and those in positions of trust. The people in this story are rarely kind; even though it’s unsaid it’s given that it’s not their fault. The human spirit can endure only so much.
The language doesn’t hold anything back. It is often explicitly graphic with appalling acts emphasised by unemotional delivery. The audience inevitably uses their imagination to make up for the lack of visuals; these images are far worse than anything that could be presented on stage. Though the performance could use shortening, it’s soaked with detail and condenses years into hours. Shaving off half an hour would still maintain impact, but it’s not Forced Entertainment’s job to make us comfortable. Director Tim Etchells wants us to think, empathise and listen, really listen, even if the process isn’t easy. The Notebook is a hard production to watch, but the message of acceptance and universal humanity is a vital one.
The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.