Before Forced Entertainment’s celebrated rendition of Agota Kristof’s harrowing novel The Notebook returns to Battersea Arts Centre where it made its London debut last year, audiences are treated to a glimpse into Tim Etchells’ director’s notebook. Playing for just two nights, A Broadcast/Looping Pieces is a playful, fragmentary thing which toys with its spectators, with words, and with snippets of plays that might have been.
Etchells steps into the room and says “I want to talk to you I really want to talk to you I mean I know we’re talking now but I really want to talk to you.” This string of words, at first sincere, becomes devoid of all meaning as he says it over and over again until the meaning comes back. In A Broadcast/Looping Pieces, Etchells is literally a stuck record, caught in analogue loops. He yearns for a world “before the internet” and dwells on themes like time and human connection as well as beautiful images of shadows and “her”. Like an actor learning a part he flicks through cue cards, playing with the words and letting them loop round, changing the stresses and feeling each time he speaks them.
There’s nonsense and deep insights but every time Etchells hooks his audience with something profound he lets us loose with another dive into the bizarre, or a commentary on a film. The denial of closure is frustrating but there’s something incredibly skilled about Etchells’ delivery. He works with the tempo of the words, mixing and remixing them together like a linguistic DJ. It doesn’t make much sense at times but it’s often kind of moving.
More skilled delivery is on the menu at the Forced Entertainment double bill with The Notebook. This time two men stand before the audience and read from paper: Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon, dressed identically in grey suits, thick knitted jumpers and glasses. They begin to read from their brown notebooks and, by the powers of stage magic and good storytelling, are completely transformed from middle aged men to the young children of Kristof’s novel.
The Notebook is two and a half uninterrupted, unrelenting bleak hours. Speaking either in unison or in matching dispassionate voices, the boys relay a tale so horrible that it would be hard to listen if they showed any emotion at all. But they don’t, and this is why it’s so powerful as a piece. The grotesque scenes we hear that the boys experienced and recorded in their notebook are all true – they insist – and just part of their dreadful everyday lives. They’re desensitised, both by the general terrors of a war not specified, though its clear where somewhere in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, and by their conscious efforts. Horrific scenes of child abuse, bestiality, the holocaust and family crisis are all told in a remarkable deadpan way.
Though it, too, is a war tale told through the eyes of two children, The Notebook is no ‘The Book Thief’ or ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’. These books revealed the brutalities of war but focused on humanity despite adversity; The Notebook is far more interested in the evil and the perversions that can lie in anyone, even a pair of young twin boys.
The Notebook is a test of theatrical endurance, both for the performers and the audience. While Arthur and Lowdon’s mirrored performances are near fautless, the audience’s attention flickers at points. It feels far too long, though of course an interval would interrupt our journey into the dark and twisted world (and mind) of the twins. Ultimately, it’s an incredibly rewarding, and deeply disturbing, experience. Paired with A Broadcast/Looping pieces, it shows Forced Entertainment as the great storytellers they are, breaking dramatic moulds to bring new, challenging experiences to those who have been fans for thirty years and newcomers alike.