Agota Kristof: The Notebook on stage
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
By MICHAEL CAINES
“In an unidentified country, at an unspecified time, in the midst of an unnamed war, twin boys are foisted on their peasant grandmother . . .”
Earlier this year, Eimear McBride deftly reviewed for the TLS two books published by CB Editions: The Notebook and The Illiterate by Agota Kristof. The first is a novel, originally published as Le Grand Cahier in 1986, the second a brief memoir, originally published as L’Analphabète in 2004. The first is written in French, the second recounts the experience of “enforced illiteracy”, as this escapee from the Eastern Bloc, who fled to Switzerland as an eleven year old during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, learned her new language.
At the same time as The Notebook testifies to the history of atrocity and conquest that Kristof was lucky to survive, it isn’t a history lesson: as above, the basic setting is “unidentified”, “unspecified”, “unnamed”. The twin boys through whom the story is told are never named, the “Big Town” they have come from is just that, their neighbours are “Harelip” and her mother, the parish priest is just the parish priest, and so on. If you’ve read this far, you already, in a way, know more than you need to know to appreciate this uncanny little demon of a book; it was a great success on its first publication, and deserves to be so again now.
I’ve not only read The Notebook this week but had it read at me by Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon, the two performers in Forced Entertainment’s suitably stripped-back adaptation of the book – their first adaptation of a novel, apparently, in thirty years of experimenting on stage. (Other productions this year include the six-hour Speak Bitterness and the twenty-four-hour Quizoola!, as well as The Notebook on tour; I saw it at the Battersea Arts Centre, where it is running for three nights as part of LIFT 2014.)
For some theatre critics – not all, certainly – this double dosing isn’t a completely unusual experience. You might read, say, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, before daring to comment on what a recent RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon directed by Gregory Doran and starring Anthony Sher does with Shakespeare’s words. (I can’t think why that particular example should come to mind.) The Notebook on stage, however, is notably astute in its mimicking of Kristof’s unsettling, sometimes brutal yet, even more unsettlingly, often humorous tone – down to its unidentified, unspecified, unnamed minimalism. Others have not always recognized that this is the source of the novel's strength.
As in the photo above, the actors dress identically and read from scripts that look like identical large notebooks or exercise books. Sometimes they stand, sometimes they sit. At radical moments, they move the chairs. (Just once, I think, I caught Robin Arthur sitting while Richard Lowdon stood.) The focus remains constantly on the telling (not showing) of the story. There are no sound effects or incidental music as such. Among other lighting effects, side lights burn two human shadows onto bare theatre walls.
The effect is compelling, but, when the two actors speak in unison, “we” twins, indivisible and, to everybody else in the story, unknowable, it can also be very funny. The twins outwit everyone, including the audience, who have to attune quickly to their incantations; the two voices are a sharply trained blending of modulations playing off one another, barely, if ever, a consonant out of time. A glance at one another, a breath, and they’re off, over wry phrases (the twins boast a disquietingly prodigious perspicuity of expression) and deadpan pauses. Each “chapter”, announced in unison, feels like a movement in music.
(This may be why, the morning after, I can't forget that I was seated near a man who couldn’t stop fidgeting and sniffing. Then, rows away, a phone vibrated – “silent mode” isn’t the same as turning the thing off. A siren wailed outside. . . . Petty irritation aside, perhaps it's best to take your own sensitivity to such “interventions” as a measure of how much a performance is drawing you in.)
The programme speaks of Kristof’s sense of “the potential of a straightforward approach to language” but doesn’t appear to acknowledge Alan Sheridan, whose straightforward English translation is what CB Editions have published. If it’s not his, it would be interesting to know; the smoothly made adjustments to the story would seem to be all Forced Entertainment’s own ingenious work, but the language is not, strictly, the Hungarian-into-French-speaking Kristof's.