When it comes to suffering for your art, there’s no one does it quite like Forced Entertainment. Nor reaches parts other theatre performances fail to touch.
One of our oldest Performance Art companies, celebrating 30 years, they are, strange to tell, an institution – a description they’d probably reject, given that their whole existence has been about working against conventional norms, deconstructing the meaning of theatre and approaching it, much like Peter Brook, as a laboratory place to interrogate form as much as content.
As part of this year’s Lift and the 14-18 NOW programme marking the centenary of WW1 and a six-day programme, After The War devised by Lift and Forced Entertainment’s respective artistic directors Mark Ball and Tim Etchells, The Notebook presents a demanding two hours.
Two actors – Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon – enter from the back door of the old Battersea Town Hall council chamber dressed in matching dull, grey suits and red sweaters. That, for the next two hours, comprises the visual action, alleviated from time to time by swopping chairs with each other or standing. The rest of the `action’ lies within the words and the human conditions related from the book the two actors hold in their hands.
The book tells of war and the effects of war, written in 1986 by Hungarian writer, Àgota Kristóf. The events could be applied to any number of war-torn situations of modern times but were etched in the author’s memories of post World War Two and Hungary’s absorption as part of the Soviet state.
Told from the vantage point of two young boys, twins, evacuated by their mother to live with their poverty-stricken grand-mother in the country, the story is told without emotion or adornment of things seen, people met and experiences endured, all with a shuddering matter-of-factness.
The boys carry a simple code of behaviour: they accept what is in front of them, but when pragmatism or expediency dictates, they are not above blackmail. Or murder it turns out. They are both `good’ but slightly sinister, non-judgemental even when they witness sexual experiences such as bestiality or are themselves subjected to abuse and lured into sado-masochistic practises by a `foreign officer’.
Everything that happens to them and which they witness is consigned to the notebook which becomes their prop and standard bearer.
The effect of all this on today’s audience is both gulp-making and yet strangely distancing. Two hours becomes an eternity, an exercise in concentrated listening.
As such it makes huge demands on an audience’s willingness to `stick with it’.
But the challenge pays off. Few can have themselves experienced the kind of deprivation and need outlined by Kristóf in such crisp, rational, but ultimately critical tones. Forced to sit and listen – the company’s title here takes on an extra relevant emphasis! – The Notebook becomes in itself an education in endurance.
Arthur and Lowdon too create an extraordinary unity of delivery, a double-voice expression of children becoming old before their time and an account of what is like to be twinned with another. Twins for life until a bitter ending and a survival instinct bred of warfare, parts them.
Again and again, one is reminded of latter-day conflicts and those suffering – women and children particularly – under them.