The Notebook at Battersea Arts Centre
Forced Entertainment’s latest production tells the story of twin boys who struggle through an unimaginable ordeal – a fate shared by the unfortunate audience. The Notebook is an adaptation of the book by the same name, written by Agota Kristof. The company’s theatrical realisation of the text is more akin to a performative reading than a dramatic adaptation: two actors enter, and read from the text, scripts ever-present, and on occasion stand up or sit down.
The shifts in position that mark the changes of chapter provide the only movement in the piece, where voices rarely deviate from an unnatural calm, and normal dramatic performances of character are forsaken. Amid the strange minimalism, several audience members leave the theatre. But although the production is at times dull and certainly over-long, those leaving in the early exodus miss a remarkable story. The text twists and turns, navigates dark hollows of the war-time human psyche, provides black humour, ethical dilemmas and an emotional gut punch. Yet still, the performers – committed and eerily synchronised though they are – merely stand up and sit down.
There is letting the text speak for itself, and then there is an audiobook with legs. As shocking and emotive as the source material is, sadly this performance does not deliver. The only pause in the duo’s narrative routine is a short “play-within-a-play” where gestures are permitted, and the brothers no longer mirror one another, mock acting separate roles. Shortly after the interlude, however, normality resumes, and standing and sitting are once more the sole punctuation of the tale.
No matter how good the story, in theatre it is imperative that something is added to the source material, and it is neither used as a crutch nor parroted, however glorious on paper. The grown men are believable as an odd fraternal couple, creating an unsettled atmosphere heightened by the audience’s discomfort. It is not that the performers aren’t untalented, very much the contrary: their overgrown child routine pared back to a sparse suggestion is expertly done. It is simply that there is no point to the adaptation itself. Forced Entertainment’s version presents a narration but not a performance. Any emotions it elicits are the result of the text, which itself inspired the company. The deadpan delivery may at times be comical, but it does not build upon the source material.
Brave though this minimalist production is, the conclusion remains: The Notebook is good book, but not great theatre.
The Notebook is on at Battersea Arts Centre from 3rd until 14th November 2015, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch a trailer for The Notebook here: