Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 8th March, 2016
Forced Entertainment’s current tour is their adaptation of Agota Kristof’s novel about twin brothers sent to live on their grandmother’s farm during the War. Facing extreme hardships of poverty and physical labour, the boys’ bond becomes stronger as the world around them, as seen through their eyes, becomes darker and more dangerous.
They record their experiences in the titular notebook, restricting themselves to a purely factual approach. Their matter-of-face account is at turns funny, stark, and disturbing.
The staging could hardly be simpler. Two actors dressed identically represent the unnamed twins (although at first sight I think of them as Gilbert and George!). They narrate, reading from notebooks, sometimes in unison, sometimes in turn. Director Tim Etchells keeps the focus on the storytelling – the actors have very little else to do other than to tell the story – but he keeps things from becoming too static by having them rearrange their pair of chairs for different chapters’ different settings.
The overall effect is utterly compelling.
Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon deliver the twins’ story with the clarity and forthright manner of precocious children. Incidents amuse, repel, shock and horrify – the boys’ humanity is between the lines they read. They develop their own moral code, born out of the physical and sexual abuses inflicted on them and the horrors they see perpetrated as the War encroaches deeper into their little world. You wouldn’t want to cross them or stand in their way, is all I’m saying.
The timing is impeccable, in terms of the speaking in unison and the lengths of the silences that punctuate the more graphic or affecting scenes. Subtle changes in the lighting (designed by Jim Harrison) add to the sense of time, place and mood, almost imperceptibly, in a story that is for the most part played out in our mind’s eye. This may be theatre stripped to its bare bones but in our heads, the richness of the story, evoked by accomplished and captivating narrators, carries us along to a stark and moving resolution.
I did find, however, it is a bit long. Two and a half hours without a break. Of course, an interval would have disrupted the flow and the world-building in our imaginations, I appreciate that – my mind was engaged and my emotions stirred but also my bum was well and truly numbed!