A fearless physical performance by Cate Blanchett as Lotte — a woman left with emotional Tourette’s after her husband leaves her on holiday in Morocco — makes the painful, disjointed search for salvation depicted in Botho Strauss’ “Gross und Klein” (which translates to “Big and Small”) a grossly enjoyable trip.
We follow Lotte, a bundle of raw nerves in need of an urgent emotional salve, as she seeks once again to connect with someone. First stop on her quest is her husband, who again rejects her. An attempt at bonding with a distant (and wonderfully twisted) school friend leads to a string of relatives, fellow travellers and lovers until she is left haunting doctors’ waiting rooms without appointments, content to bask in the relative proximity of strangers.
Blanchett is astonishing, in turns dauntless and daffy, contrite and wildly physical. Whether she is acting big (questioning her own predicament in a phone booth soliloquy before morphing into a crazed gold-dressed dancer) or small (slowly unravelling as a bin-digging evangelist at a bus stop) her Lotte feels real, her hurt acute. This is a woman who is not just wearing her pain on her sleeve but taking handfuls of it and hurling it at all those within her ever-shrinking sphere.
As her emotional filter has been destroyed, so too has her ability to make connections, and her ten-part journey sees her worn down with a kind of mad grace.
Strauss’ play was written in West Germany in the 1970s, long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time when one side of the city had experienced the counterculture of the ’60s while the other languished. In this way “Gross und Klein” is also about a disconnect within society, a theme that works just as well in today’s climate of technological isolation. Strauss’ abstract narrative and the elliptical language provided by Martin Crimp’s savvy update ensure the play remains relevant without resorting to actors pulling out BlackBerrys or talking about email.
Still, while the plot may veer towards the surreal, Johannes Schutz’s spare, geometric set brings a sense of order to help confine the craziness Lotte cannot herself contain. Lighting designer Nick Schlieper deserves credit here too for subtle, haunting illumination of background players and brave use of huge strips of white light that allow Blanchett seemingly to hover in space during the opening scene, literally underscoring Lotte’s growing alienation.
Director Benedict Andrews, who came to the project late after the departure of European helmer Luc Bondy, never allows Blanchett’s magnetic perf to dominate the production, giving supporting thesps — in particular Josh McConville and Anita Hegh — room to show their chops.
But it is undeniably Blanchett’s evening and looks certain to attract international interest. The play is already set to travel to Blighty’s Barbican in 2012.