Review: Big and Small, Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican

“Lotte doesn’t know what Lotte is talking about”

Anticipation can be a killer, but from the moment last year that the Barbican announced Cate Blanchett would be part of their contributions to the London 2012 Festival, I’d been über-excited to see one of my favourite film actors onstage for the first time, so much so that I spent rather a fair amount on my ticket in order to get as close as I could in the Barbican’s large theatre. Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton have spent the last three years as Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company and it is one of their productions, co-commissioned by the Barbican and other partners, that is now stopping in London as part of an international tour.

The vehicle chosen is perhaps a bit of a surprise, given that the likes of Uncle Vanya and A Streetcar Named Desire preceded it, but it proves to be an inspired choice. Gross und Klein is a 1978 play by (West) German playwright Botho Strauss and Martin Crimp was commissioned to create a new English adaptation simply entitled Big and Small. And as the play focuses on the epic journey of Lotte as she struggles to make sense of her place in the world, we are treated to an immense performance from Blanchett as she rarely leaves the stage for the 150 minute duration.

Lotte is a woman unsure of herself in the puzzle that is modern life as her marriage to a newspaper columnist falls apart and she feels somewhat estranged from the world. Across 10 scenes, vignettes of contemporary German life, Lotte tries to make connections with neighbours, long-lost friends, strangers, to stop herself from feeling on the outside looking in. But nothing is what it cracks up to be, dreams and aspirations deemed to be hopeless as Lotte unpeels the realities of life in all its simultaneous mundanity and complexity on that elusive hunt for self-acceptance. 

In an accomplished company of 14, Blanchett is undoubtedly the star. As she ricochets from one scene to the next, she mines, and completely sells, a self-deprecatory humour: gawky and deglammed in an remarkably ego-free performance, she’s funny and sad, pathetic and yet endlessly moving. I was so glad to have forked out the extra cash to be front stalls to catch every gesture, every movement, every nuance in her face which was utterly worth it. There’s such depth and intelligence in her acting, that whether she flailing around in the most awkward of dance routines or seeming on the verge of finally breaking through to another person, she is never less than completely engaging. 

But she’s not alone. The other 13 actors cover a whirl of cameos, some brief and wordless, some more extended which offer great counterpoints to Blanchett’s Lotte. Richard Pyros’ bureaucrat Jurgen is brilliant as is Chris Ryan’s uncomplicated ‘Man in Parka’ whose penultimate scene was probably the most moving section of the show for me, the powerfully, gloriously understated ending aside.

Johannes Schütz‘s design is extraordinary, especially given how little ‘set’ there is. He’s created a giant black space in which normal rules of time and space are suspended and a minimalist aesthetic employed to gorgeous effect. Using just a few pieces in each scene – a phone box, a row of chairs, an apartment block, a road – and keeping us constantly on our toes with changing perspectives, the design is practically an art installation in itself, enhanced beautifully by Nick Schlieper’s evocative lighting.

And even as a latecomer to the project after the withdrawal of original director Luc Bundy, Benedict Andrew’s direction is near-flawless, somehow connecting these disparate scenes even as we travel through the non-linear, relatively narrative-free scenarios. Crimp’s adaptation employs some updating – nanotechnology, mobiles and euros are all mentioned – but simultaneously manages to retain a timeless feel, the Communist-era aesthetic remains palpable as a reminder of the context in which it was written. 

There’s no doubting that Big and Small will not be for everyone. So many – as I myself did – will have booked on the strength of Blanchett’s name alone with little realisation that nearly three hours of German existentialist theatre lies in wait. I can’t pretend to say I know what it all meant or what it was trying to achieve, and where some people will dislike that aspect intensely, especially since it is really not a cheap night out – regardless, it touched a chord deep inside me. It is challenging theatre, thought-provoking and obscure but daringly creative and a truly unique opportunity to see possibly one of the finest actresses in the world at the top of her game.

Running time: 165 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 
Booking until 29th April, then touring to Vienna and Recklinghausen

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