Every so often, theatre folk like to prove their experimentalism by batting around the topic, "Directors: do we really need them?" After all, the role of the director as such is barely a century old. And Brian McMaster's Edinburgh International Festival programmes over the years have displayed a number of excessive examples of "director's theatre", where the presentational conceit is all. Nevertheless, it is rare as hen's teeth to see a powerful yet directorless non-solo show. This year's Festival boasts a brace of them.
Flemish company De Onderneming (The Enterprise) embrace a thoroughly collaborative working aesthetic, and their adaptations of Hungarian-born, Swiss-resident Agota Kristof's novels The Notebook and The Proof, played in English, testify to their success in adopting this process. The first portrays the upbringing of a pair of twins, Claus and Lucas, in a small Hungarian border town in the last years of World War II: evacuated to their exploitative grandmother, they teach themselves in turn to exploit others; they teach themselves to read via the only available book, a bible; they programmatically harden themselves both physically and psychologically to withstand the depredations of their surroundings, yet still perform acts of mercy and compassion at the same time as uncaringly manipulating others. Clad only in underwear, holding hands much of the time and often speaking in unison, actors Robby Cleiren and Günther Lesage tread the delicate line between deadpan humour and the emotional power of minimalism on an almost bare Royal Lyceum stage, augmented by Ryszard Turbiasz and the often deliciously sardonic Carly Wijs as the rest of their family and the village.
The Notebook ends with Claus's escape across the heavily guarded frontier. The Proof takes up the story of their respective adulthoods, of a reunion thwarted by denial and of further flashback versions of their childhood. It is a more sombre affair, delivered even more predominantly by players standing downstage centre and delivering lines straight out to the audience as the competing stories and tensions experienced by the various characters take precedence over external events. The old canard that you can't go back is emphasised by the sense that personal histories themselves have changed in the interim, not least as a result of Hungary's experiences through the war, 1956 and its aftermath until the frontier came down. The twins' toughening has taken them beyond the point where they can bring themselves to reunite as the single entity which both nevertheless still feel themselves to be.
As with Théâtre de Quat'Sous' Novecento, De Onderneming's spare style of performance concentrates attention on the story itself. Both International Festival and Fringe have had a good year for storytelling, for focus upon the inmost core of drama, and these two productions function as a flagship for such an approach.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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