‘The Notebook’ Programme Note by Tim Etchells

Words paint such vivid pictures, and somehow the simpler the better.

Writing The Notebook from the perspective of two children relocated to the countryside during World War Two, the Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf knew very well the potential of a straightforward approach to language. Her twin narrators – the unnamed boys who describe their troubled lives in the countryside as the war drags to its conclusion and the new reality of Hungary as a Russian satellite state takes hold – have a style that’s poised between kids’ picture book and hard-boiled detective fiction.

Unflinching in their gaze when it comes to the hardships of occupied Hungary the boys insist on telling things just as they are. “True things,” they say at one point in the book, “not invented things”, whilst elsewhere they expound the philosophy that appears to have framed Kristóf’s own approach to writing the novel: “Avoiding feelings… and sticking to… the faithful description of facts”, namely, “what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do”.

Reading the book Forced Entertainment and I were immediately drawn to the text, because Kristóf’s interest in the pictorial dimension of language chimes so well with our own concerns in a range of different performance projects created over the years; from the imaginary performance described in Dirty Work, to the condensed micro-narratives of Speak Bitterness and the short-form predictions of the future spelled out in Tomorrow’s Parties. We’ve long been drawn to the way that stories and images summoned simply in words alone connect so well with audiences as imaginative collaborators.

What’s clear in Kristóf’s extraordinary novel is that the device of bare bones narration is also perfect for creating a moral ambiguity – driving a narrative in which events and actions, presented without apparent judgement from the protagonists, are left to resonate in all of their problematic complexity. Questions about the rights and wrongs of what happen, the motivation or even the tone of the characters’ actions is often left in a kind of deliberate suspension. The blank facts – simply presented, stripped of adjectives, without comment or judgment – become questions in fact, enigmas of action that we as readers, spectators and witnesses have to make sense of. This too has a deep connection for the work in performance that we have been pursuing at Forced Entertainment, because it echoes our interest in performance itself as a troubling, and to some extent incommensurable act – at once a knot made by the arrangement of words and actions over and through time, a negotiation with the audience, and at core perhaps, simply a problem thrown into a room.

Kristóf’s book shares something with the first text we made into a work for theatre – Exquisite Pain – Sophie Calle’s troubling collection and exchange of narratives about heartbreak and suffering. Although different in significant ways, the two works are linked both by a simplicity of language and by a use of narrative statement as the basis for philosophical and in some senses ethical questions. But what links them more, in our minds at least, is the perception that they are each built on deeply performative ground. In Calle it is the act of telling and retelling, an exchange of her personal story with stories of others, that creates this foundation in performance, whereas in Kristóf it is the vivid problem of the twin narrators, a duo who refuse to present themselves as individuals, and whose account of events is framed by a relentless and apparently indivisible ‘we’. Reading the book it is hard not to be struck at once by the violence of this identity confusion or submission to the anonymity of a collective subjecthood, the comical and shocking force of the twins’ insistence on, and individual disappearance in, the act of speaking as one. Staging the book we are confronted by this same shock, not as a linguistic abstraction but rather in the form of the present, performative and material weirdness of two people claiming one role, acting, and speaking together.

The Notebook is about brutality and about survival – a tale not so much about soldiers, armies and other active agents, as it is about the population that endures the conflict under occupation – a story about a war presented from a peripheral perspective: that of the old, the wounded, of the women and the children; a story of the war from the perspective of those caught in its’ machinery.

Tim Etchells
Sheffield 2014