Cate Blanchett’s enactment of the central role, Lotte, in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of German playwright Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein (aka Big and Small) was so exquisitely complete for me in performance that the world of the play continues even now, twenty-four hours later, to engage my imagination. I travel its streets and encounter Lotte. I feel her strivings to make a good impression in front of family, friends and acquaintances and I witness her final moments as she tragically disappears into ‘the abyss’.
To say that London is “abuzz as Blanchett hits town” – as reported in The Melbourne Age – is pretty accurate if you take the views of London theatre critics on board as well. Charles Spencer of The Telegraph remembers the tough-hitting Gross Und Klein from seeing Glenda Jackson enact the role of Lotte in 1983: he writes “…while it would be wrong to suggest that this is an enjoyable evening, it is an often riveting and thrilling one, blessed with a sensational performance from Blanchett that combines dramatic virtuosity with truth, humour, tenderness and an aching vulnerability.” Paul Taylor of The Independent simply says that “Blanchett is magnificent throughout, especially in the later stages – at one point, she strips to a spangly gold tutu and wrestles with furious abandonment against an invisible God-figure; at another, she keeps involuntary channelling the deep voice of a deity while chatting to a nerd at a bus stop.” Ian Shuttleworth of The Financial Times uses the adjective ‘riveting’ also to describe how Blanchett was “animated and vibrant, her Lotte shows us exactly what she is thinking and feeling at every instant, and does so with as much energy as the other 13 players put together. The highly respected and long-time critic of The Guardian, Michael Billington, concludes his critique with the view that Blanchett “will long be remembered for her moving passage from a figure of bounding, irrepressible energy to one shrouded in silence like a Samuel Beckett character staring into the abyss.”
Personally, the most moving critique I’ve read of Cate Blanchett’s impact on London theatre this week was by Euan Ferguson of The Observer
The good news, for fans of genuine deserve-it A-list celebrities or (more importantly) simply good acting, is that Cate Blanchett is beyond terrific. Whimperingly, blisteringly terrific. She is a revelation, and those cynics who at times sniff at Hollywood stars bringing themselves into London’s theatreland to hone their “real acting” kudos should sit down in front of this show, for the full three hours; and they would then stand and applaud……it is well-nigh impossible to tear one’s eyes from Cate Blanchett, right from the opener, as she sits, smoking, on stage, gazing at us, soliloquising at us. Fine, much of it is admittedly mad absurdist German 70s playwright soliloquising – yet she delivers it with such confidence and humour, her breaths swooping and dying but every single pointed, angry or delighted line being nailed just-so, that from here on in you actually forgive much of the play and simply marvel at being in the presence of a bona fide stage star.
I’m left wondering what exists of Strauss’ Gross und Klein outside Blanchett’s performance.
In an interview by Alex Lalak with the production’s highly-acclaimed director, Benedict Andrews (printed in the theatre program) Andrews says this of the play:
I first read the play – in Anne Cattaneo’s 1979 American translation – when I was at university. Then, I was thrilled by the seemingly fragmented, de-centred dramaturgy…The slow motion detonation of character and narrative…The existential puzzle… Now, I’m interested in how the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey contronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s blog pages makes for extremely interesting reading as it shows archived images of the STC’s 1988 production of Gross Und Klein with Robyn Nevin and reports how the internationally acclaimed Swiss director, Luc Bondy, was originally meant to direct the production. However, as Jo Litson, writes in one blog, Andrews is called on to do the job when Bondy suffers a painful back injury. On accepting the director’s role, Andrews also admits he hadn’t thought about Strauss a great deal since his university days.
“He’s from the originating Schaubühne generation with Peter Stein and part of that movement. I’ve worked with a different generation of Schaubühne that’s called ‘the blood and sperm’ generation – writers like Marius [von Mayenburg] and directors like Thomas Ostermeier. They define themselves as having a different agenda from the generation before them. I guess I’ve been thinking about German theatre more from that era so it’s interesting to go back to this.”
Andrews considers Gross und Klein Strauss’ “great work. Partly because it was created in a very specific culture in this ideological war zone of what was Western Germany – a society under pressure, a fault line, an economic and cultural experiment – and maybe this play was what the Germans call ‘theatre of a new sensibility’.
“It was very, very new this rootless figure [Lotte] in a world where values have been lost and a new modernity has come in quite fast. She’s a very interesting figure because she’s like an alien in her own land. In that way she’s a relation of Agnes in Strindberg’s A Dream Play or Alice [in Wonderland] or Dorothy [in The Wizard of Oz] – a child-woman wandering through a land where she is an alien. Therefore, she shows the land in a new way.”
It was this metaphor of Lotte as both a character and a ‘state of being’ that I felt was being expressed in the STC’s interpretation of the play: its new translation by Martin Crimp, Andrews’s exquisite directing, Johannes Schutz’s set design, Nick Schlieper’s lighting and the acting ensemble , all seemed to encapsulate the cultural dimensions of post-war Germany and, perhaps, of Europe as a whole as it struggled to find its way around an increasingly non-European dominated world. How will old friends and new acquaintances greet its overtures to hold onto existing relationships and find new ones? Past colonies and new nations now seemed in their ascendancy as old Europe disintegrates under the weight of its legacies of war and exploitation!
I’d describe Gross Und Klein as a great play: as iconic as Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author and Beckett’s Waiting For Godot with regards to its revelations of European culture, particularly, the post-post-war generation of the the 1970s and beyond. By definition, that meant that I viewed it as realising the details of how past legacies impacted on present causes: how was personal and social pains to be endured and where were the possibilities for enduring love to be found? It was the total blend of the personal as political that made Gross Und Klein ‘contemporary ‘. So for me it was not the play’s non-naturalistic style with its dream-like, existentialist view of the world, which critics noted were influenced by Robert Le Page and other ‘minimalists’ contemporary theatre makers. What was far more disturbing was the enduring sense of blind faith, fresh hope and unselfish love which characterised the central role of Lotte. In a world seemingly devoid of such righteous qualities, how have such qualities come to exist at all?
I could see how Gross Und Klein held within its drama the dregs of many so-called civilised ideals of Western culture around religious belief, family bonds and civil society. Imagining the play as a bizarrely assembled Everyman-style morality play, I witnessed Lotte visit her ex-husband, meet up with the occupants of his apartment block, look up a childhood friend and have a family reunion with her brother and his in-laws. Like Everyman, Lotte spoke directly to ‘God’ but unlike Everyman, the God of Western culture does not give her the burning bush experience or the booming voice one which knocked Paul from his horse. Her encounter, like that of Mary of Nazareth, was defined by her sex.
The moment when this point seemed to scream to me from the stage was when Lotte wrestled with her imaginary God to the ground but ‘He’ pinned her down and raped her. She, legs apart, gave over to his power. The impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit? The Word becoming Flesh? Then, as so as biblical references were hinted at they were immediately abandoned as Lotte brings up her bloodied hands and sits up in alarm at the sight of her own blood: whether it was menstrual blood or the sign of a miscarriage, she would not be giving birth to a Messiah or to any child.
The absence of children in the play seemed to be deliberately placed as a kind of ultimate sign of Lotte’s and ‘the land’s’ inability to re-conceive itself into something ‘new’, to make a new start. The only ‘child’ was revealed as living and moving around in a tent, a girl abandoned by her biological mother and taken care of collectively by the tenants of the apartment block in which she now lives. She so loathed herself that she preferred to remain in a kind of self-constructed womb – the zipped up tent – rather than live in the ‘real’ world. There was no hint that she would be emerging soon, possessed with any sense of her own right to life. The tenants have also long ago accepted their responsibility for caring for her in her tented-existence.
William Butler Yeats’s poem “Among School Children” ends with a question: ”How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It is a question that always comes to mind whenever I try to understand how performing artists come to embody a play’s meaning before an audience : Blanchett’s brilliant enactment of Lotte, the STC treatment of Gross Und Klein under Benedict Andrews’s direction and playwright Botho Strauss’s blistering optimistic text remain a revelation to me .