As I was sitting watching Gross und Klein (Big and Small) at the Barbican Theatre I couldn’t help getting lost in the humour and tangential nature of Botho Strauss’s play, albeit here in an English version by Martin Crimp. It propels its audience into a dizzying and fragmented story that (unless you are willing to give over your sense of linear thought and your desire to understand every metaphor in the dialogue) will only give you a headache. Beware, those of a nervous theatre disposition, Big and Small is not for naturalism buffs. What we have is the world seen through a very specific lens, and anyone familiar with Crimp’s writing will understand the absurdity that can come from work of such a fragmented nature. Here we have a masterpiece of thought-provoking, spiritual, witty and at times surreal theatre presented by the Sydney Theatre Company, led by the formidable Cate Blanchett.
Strauss’s play focuses on the overly optimistic Lotte (played by Blanchett) as she encounters the society around her. The play is significantly fragmented and episodic; Lotte seems to endlessly wander from moment to moment, from husband to brother to stranger, never finding herself but constantly questioning. It is through this happy-go-lucky outlook and inquisitive meandering that Lotte becomes a tragic character, who we find increasingly funny as she is rejected and spurned by everyone. Ultimately, there is a larger question, some spiritual questioning of how significant we all are in the world, which emerges towards the end of the three hours playing time.
Leading the production is Blanchett, who is truly outstanding throughout. Her whimsical Lotte grows and shrinks as she stumbles through her rejections from characters both loved and unknown. There appears to be no ending to the depths of Blanchett‘s repertoire as she madly dances, sings and confronts her fellow players with playful agility. She is surprisingly comical, with the audience laughing continually at her outlooks on life and the world. Yet riding underneath this is a great sadness that seeps from her and we can’t help but to feel it. Crimp’s adaption makes for a Lotte of such wide-eyed wondering that she leaves herself vulnerable. It’s as if Blanchett is a peach of such sweetness that she bruises at the softest of touches. Big and Small is worth seeing for Blanchett’s performance alone.
In terms of the overall production, it is a feat of precision, inventiveness and creativity. Crimp’s sharp dialogue is brilliantly translated through Benedict Andrews’s direction and Johannes Schutz’s set design. Forming enclosed spaces from parts of walls, or stripping back the scenery to nothing but the darkness of the Barbican stage, only add to the unearthly quality that resonates from Andrews’s production. It would be wrong to suggest that it’s a straight forward play; there is far too much abstraction and the non-linear structure makes it hard to follow every encounter. But where you fall into attempting to piece together a narrative arc, Blanchett maintains a constant and it is only through enduring the production that the more philosophical questions come to the surface. At times you have to fight against a desire to understand everything and to seek meaning, and instead relax into a play that unravels slowly but surely.
It would be fair to say that it’s a production not suited to those who enjoy their productions nicely framed with resolved plots and characters who represent a part of our own lives. Big and Small shatters this ideal, and instead offers a fragmented trajectory which the audience are meant to navigate, and it feels right to suggest that the production is rooted in contemporary German playfulness. For me, this becomes a joy: it’s a wake up call, and reminds me instantly of watching Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet on the same Barbican stage. For some, the draw of Blanchett will be enough, and for others it will be a disappointing and bemusing evening. For me, though, I’d much prefer to have bemusement and Blanchett’s formidable presence than a night seeking to escape myself. Big and Small is a challenge, but so rewarding if you are willing to invest in it. A play that will surely have me thinking for many hours, if not days, ahead.
Big and Small is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 29 April. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website.