June 2014 | BAC, London
Forced Entertainment were recently back at their London home, Battersea Arts Centre, for the UK Premiere of their latest work The Notebook. Based on Kristof’s stunning text, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this, arguably Forced Entertainment’s most narrative driven work to date. Once again, I was not let down.
Fitting then, that this is my most linear written review to date, and my first full review for Postdramatic. Settle in; it’s lengthy (but I think they’d like that). Basically, it’s a story. Two brothers, battling for survival in a war-torn Central Europe, all the while on a voyage of discovery of their own morality. From here, I’m not going to talk too much about the story, other than to support my observations of Forced Entertainment’s expertly crafted production.
Let’s start with the treatment of the text. It is obviously the most central element to this production. Like so many FE productions, notably Spectacular and Tomorrow’s Parties, the arc from beginning to end beautifully frames the production. The rhythm and shaping of Kristof’s text tells a story of its own; one of a maturing youth, of accumulating knowledge and experience, mirroring the words themselves. At the beginning, the rhythmic structure and delivery reminds me of a child learning to read. The pauses, the intonations and intakes of breath are not always in the right places. This brings a distinct naivety. Slowly, over the course of the 2 hours, this begins to dissipate, in favour of a more natural, age-acquired understanding of natural reading/speaking rhythms. Aurally this ages the performer; at the beginning of the performance they could be mistaken for 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds. By the time we reach the concluding chapters this innocence turns to wisdom; maturity. Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon articulate this so expertly; they have the audience (except two, which we’ll come to…) hanging on every word; sublime storytelling. This text isn’t easy. At points it is comic, playful; at others it goes to the darkest places. Director Tim Etchells and the company have cared for this text, respected it, and presented it, clean (though not simply) for us, the willing spectator.
I want to talk about the performers for a minute. Often when I see Forced Entertainment’s work I’m so taken aback by the concepts/ideas of the performance that I don’t fully appreciate the performers. This production is a prime example of a company reaping the rewards of 30 years working in each other’s pockets. The complicit energy between Arthur and Lowdon is mega (I know, great adjective). They both know instinctively exactly what the other will do. It is rare to see such good choral speaking, and over such an extended period. That’s the most a lot of people will say about it. But it takes so much concentration. And you can see how much they’ve worked to get to that level; there’s a moment before each chapter, where they gather, connect, and go. It reminds me of one of Meyerhold’s signature exercises, the Dactyl (look it up if you don’t know, it’s great). During one of these moments, the aforementioned couple in the audience decided to leave. Arthur and Lowdon pause. Wait. Wait. (They finally reach the top of the stairs). Wait. We loved it, as an audience. It is a superb example of the humility of Forced Entertainment’s performance practice; they understand and respect their direct relationship with audiences, and are not afraid to share this moment of unexpected joy with us. They revel in it.
There’s also something I don’t think any of us will ever understand, because we haven’t been there, working with them for 30 years. I’m referring to the energy between the performers. It is mesmerising. Everytime I see them I think ‘man, they’re so cool!’. That’s not because they look cool, but because they know exactly how to find that same place (headspace?), whenever, wherever they perform. *That last bit probably doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. And perhaps them?*
Now the bit that most other reviewers haven’t really talked about at all, but what makes this such a sophisticated, educated performance. I refer of course to the stage, the lights, the space (movement).
The lighting is very familiar. I think most of the shows I’ve seen (Forced Entertainment is older than me, so granted it’s not comprehensive) have used 6 booms, 3 either side of the stage, lighting in a horizontal plane. It’s unusual, creating at the same time both a feeling of natural light (combined with other sources, it ‘fills the room’ like the sun, or a bare bulb) and unnerving, supernatural light (casting eerie shadows). What’s clever is the subtlety with which lighting is used; you’d barely notice unless you were looking, as the light moves from warm to cold, dim to bright, sometimes representing the physical passing of seasons, but also changes in the state of tension, emotion. Also note everything is mirrored. And not just in the lighting.
Symmetry: it is charming, pleasing to the eye, and yet haunting and unsettling. The protagonist twins cannot escape one another. They, and their chairs are constantly (bar one brief moment- what does it mean?!) mirrored, spatially. They even had symmetrical haircuts, one parted to the left, the other to the right; just another ‘tick’ for attention to small, small details. All this enabled us as a listener, a viewer, to impart upon the space our own image, constantly reminded of the insufferable, unjust, charming, insignificant, terrifying reality of these boys and those around them.
I’ve seen a number now (relative to my time on this earth) of Forced Entertainment’s productions. I think this might have pipped Spectacular and The Thrill of it All to the top of my faves…
Post-Thought: I’d have loved to see this in Riverside Studios… maybe they’ll go back?