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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 475-476
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The Notebook (Het Dikke Schrift). By Agota Kristof. De Onderneming, Théâtre National de Bretagne, Rennes, France. 28 November 2001.
The Proof (Het Bewijs). By Agota Kristof. De Onderneming, Théâtre National de Bretagne, Rennes, France. 6 December 2001.
The Notebook, Agotha Kristof's first novel of her world-renowned trilogy, was adapted for the stage by De Onderneming, an innovative theatre troupe from Antwerp, Belgium. Set, although never actually named, in what is presumably Kristof's native Hungary, her novels serve as a testimony of East-West European conflict of the second half of the twentieth century. The story portrays a set of twins who, left behind during the war with a mean-spirited, peasant grandmother, survive by inventing exercises to toughen themselves up. They then record these experiences in a notebook. A minimalist decor and a bare stage create a troubling, anonymous space in which the spectator is exposed to a unique theatre of cruelty presented by actors who both narrate and incarnate various roles.
From the opening moments when we see the miserly grandmother, harshly lit by a floor spot stage front, hiding her treasured jewels, to the epilogue soberly projected on a white sheet held by one of the actors, the play is a whirlwind of narrated passages and dramatized tableaus. While the twins are performed by two actors who do not change roles, the other two actors move in an out of diverse roles while remaining seated on stage. Other characters are represented by simple props, such as the ubiquitous officer who is designated by an authentic, leather military overcoat hung on a metal stand.
Robby Cleiren (Klaus) and Günther Lesage (Lucas) produce incongruous yet convincing characters thanks to a dead-pan, emotionally neutral delivery, punctuated by moments of innocent spontaneity. The acting effectively translates well the conditions of austerity in which the twins are brought up and their will and courage to survive. Other roles, however, suffer from an uneven approach. Ryszard Turbiasz, who plays the grandmother, conveys well this crazed and sometimes brutal hag. Decked in a hat and the same floor-length skirt, he also gives an apt performance of [End Page 475] the perverted and yet vulnerable village priest who is being blackmailed by the twins. But when he throws his skirt up over his shoulder to become the foreign soldier, he moves into a different register of acting: he abandons subtle realism to adopt coarse, slapstick comedy. The same is true of Carly Wijs. Her portrayal of the lascivious maid or handicapped Hare-Lip is done with humor, compassion, and empathy, while her performance as police chief is rendered with such a measure of distancing that the character becomes cartoon-like and loses our interest. The changing acting register could be motivated by the desire to enhance Kristof's detached and destabilizing writing style. However, there are moments when it detracts from the horror of the text and the intense emotional impact achieved by the very controlled mise-en-scène.
While the production does contain precious moments of powerful emotional impact—such as the dramatic lighting of the two actors squatting stage front; a riveting outburst of noise as the twins perform an improvised drum-roll on a bare wood table to denote the end of the war; the touching dictations where one speaks and the other, with his back to the audience, creates an exaggerated noise of the pen on the table—it is nevertheless weakened by inconsistencies in tone. For example, the directing decision to "ground" the play in a Strindbergian naturalist context (water, milk, chicken feathers, what looked like a real dead cat, etc.) does not harmonize well with the numerous passages of make-believe, improvisation, and irony. The greatest problem, in what was otherwise a fine production, was the lack of a consistent interpretive device that guides the spectator through the story. Such a device is crucial for this kind of adaptation in performance.
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