Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook) : A war story narrated from the perspective of twin brothers and enhanced by the exciting physicality of the director’s vision of the stage!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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Photo de Marie-Claude Hamel.

Olivier Morin and Renaud Lacelle-Bourdon

This is a striking and engrossing piece of theatre, both because of the originality of the play and the highly imaginative work with the actors by director Catherine Vidal who is also responsible for the adaptation of the novel of the same name. The published work is one part of a trilogy composed of Le grand cahier, La prevue and Le troisième mensonge. The Grand Cahier is narrated alternatively by the voices of two male twin, young men who have been left by their mother in the care of their grandmother with whom they live through a disturbing family experience in an unidentified country ravaged by war.

The place could be Hungary (the home of the author) or it could be any Central European space and in fact when the enemy arrives “seeking vengeance” and attacking the population, anyone who has a knowledge of WWII will immediately see the links between these events and the arrival of the Russians into that part of Europe, fuming with hate against Hitler’s cruelty during his failed invasion of Moscow. However, the author apparently purposely never identifies the geographical or national space. Thus, the script of Le grand cahier, which takes the text word for word from the novel, plays out as a timeless and nameless modern allegory of war. It removes all place specific clues, as well as all psychological realism, by plunging us into a highly physical Avant garde style of actor intervention in a timeless space, where the ultra-physicality of those performing bodies illustrates the verbal exchanges. It shows as much as it tells us about the evolution of these two twins, who, in the care of a bitter and reclusive grandmother , grow up in a human void. One almost thinks of the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser , the he German boy , who was supposed to have been brought up in the isolation of a dungeon, without any human stimulation, without speech, with little food. That story became the source of much controversy as to its truth but still, the circumstances produced a social misfit that was never able to adapt to society ever again.

The play is divided into several scenes that correspond to the various steps of their personal evolution. Everything is described meticulously as each boy assumes the narrative and as each of the voices describes their filthy clothes, their dilapidated house, their smelly bodies, the insults and mistreatment they endure from their school chums. They act out the mistreatment, they perform the snarling voices that whisper insults in their ears, they beat each other up, in the dark, so they harden their bodies to this mistreatment. They learn to live with a life that has snuffed out all expressions of emotion, or tenderness or love. The director has choreographed every single movement to produce a violent and tough masculine dance of life, with boots stamping, muscles flexing, daily household activities carried out in unison like mechanical gestures as the boys stand on their heads, flip over the furniture, grab each other in strangleholds and other violent exhibitions of male emotion that has never been tamed. They babble and garble to each each other but strangely, since they have no source of exterior communication in the house ,their language, which comes from books, is absolutely pure. And in spite of the fact that certain people have taken sexual advantage of them, In spite of their rejection of all l expression of feeling , they are capable of a sense of a ffiliation with each other as well as with the hare-.lipped daughter of a neighbour whom they defend from the assaults of the cruel boys in the vicinity. Thus their humanity is still simmering somewhere underneath those hardened exteriors.

The vocal and physical performances are precise, impeccable, perfectly controlled and astonishingly convincing. With a sudden turn of the back, a simple gesture, a total and immediate voice change they are miraculously transformed into the privileged individuals who have access to this hell where the twins are imprisoned. In an instant, they become the gnarled old granny, the timid little hare-lipped daughter next door, a sweet and sexually curious cousin, and the nasty snarling school kids spitting insults in their ears, the terrified mother and others who suddenly come to life in this horrifyingly engrossing narrative.

It all takes place on a set that suggests a hand built cabin, scattered with handmade wooden articles and brass cans transformed into a few lamps that produce subtle lighting effects, a stage where even the absence of light produces the the space of a powerful soundscape. There also emerges the panting and groaning in the shadows where we hear and imagine the tough relationship between these two young men, carrying out their own programme of cruel exercises of self survival. The simple props, a bit of string and other objects become elements of scene changes that cleverly evoke the dangerous war torn land, property limits, the advance of the enemy and even an attempted escape across the border that brings about the final moments of the play. .

Most interestingly however, this production suggests a form theatre that fuses art with “kunstgewerb”, a practice of theatre art enhanced by physical handicraft. We see how acting, interpreting a theatrical character and constructing a visual space , all become closely entwined with the process of creating the performance and the result is an event where all the theatrical elements are closely interconnected in a very phsycial way , giving the stage a strangely organic feeling.

An extremely original piece of work and the rise of a bright young director who definitely has a future in Quebec, in Canada and perhaps beyond our borders.

Le grand cahier plays until December 8, 2012

Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook)

Adapted by Catherine Vidal from the book by Agota Kristof

Directed by Catherine Vidal

Set: Catherine Vidal

Lighting: Alexandre Pilon-Guay

Music: Francis Rossignol

Costumes: Angela Vaggs

Cast : Renaud Lacelle-Bourdon (Lucas) and Olivier Morin (Klaus)

A Production of the Groupe Bec-de-Lièvre


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