Big and Small

Cate Blanchett is superb in Sydney Theatre Company’s new interpretation of German playwright Botho Strauss’s Brechtian exploration of alienation. Unlike some of the big names to tread the boards in London recently, she knows how to capture an audience. But she does so in a production that feels disjointed and aimless in the first half and only fitfully evokes the despair of being stuck on the outside looking in.

We meet Lotte (Blanchett) perched on a thin neon frame, raptly listening to snatches of pretentious waffle about a new world order from the street below her hotel room. At first, sipping from a garish cocktail, she is delighted by her incomprehension, drawing hope from it as others might from religion. But her faith turns to bewilderment as she is rejected by her estranged husband, an old school friend and ultimately all of society.

Throughout the play, an increasingly baffled Lotte asks: ‘What are you talking about?’ At the start of the second act she wonders while writing a letter if someone has redrawn the national boundaries without her knowledge, leaving her in another country. She has become a cultural immigrant, shut out and set adrift by a harsh new language of belonging that cannot be learned.

Martin Crimp’s translation is effectively staccato and brutal. Punctuated with expletives, this is a language devoid of affection – a wall of words as unyielding to Lotte as set designer Johannes Schutz’s stark, stylised white rooms and buildings, which rise out of the blackness of the stage like jagged teeth. But the script also suffers from an identity crisis, stripped of the original’s historical references while retaining German street names and mentioning texting and Gwyneth Paltrow. This awkward mix often leaves us – like Lotte at the start – with the sense that we hearing only half a conversation.

This fragmentariness is intensified by an over-long and overly picaresque first half, which essentially consists of variations on the same theme loosely strung together. With the exception of a well-executed scene in which an apartment building seems almost to come to life as the resentment of a microcosmic community pours out of its crackling intercom, there’s minimal progression either in tone or character. As yet another door slams in Lotte’s face, her alienation comes close to being monotonous.

It’s also a shame that, for a play concerned with both the big and the small, we don’t see more of the world that has rejected Lotte. In particular, a scene set around a carnival would have benefited from more than a few streamers falling from the ceiling. The occasional throng interspersed with the dark-edged one-to-ones that typify Lotte’s encounters might have lent greater meaning to the windows – both literal and metaphorical – that she presses her face up to as she watches society go on without her.

A tighter second act, which combines comedy and poignancy with assuredness, is a more satisfying experience. As Lotte travels across country, taking an office job while wearing a motorbike helmet and pulling a sledge, the production kicks into gear. Director Benedict Andrews plays scenes at a bus-stop and in a doctor’s surgery with a lightness and texture that points the production in a new direction – with a good line in surreal humour breaking through as Lotte begins to accept her place in the world, even if she will never belong to it.

And at the heart of it all is Blanchett, who dominates the show with the tearful smiles of a clown and the gaucheness of a blowsy Don Quixote, tilting at windmills where once there were friends and family. Whether dancing manically as a sequinned showgirl or slumping to the floor with the misery of a wind-up toy whose springs are wearing out, she brings Lotte to life with every inch of her body –exposing the cruel absurdity of the embittered and spiritually bankrupt society that has shaped her character. The rest of the cast is strong but she is the one that powers this production over its fault lines and into something worth watching.

 First published by Exeunt magazine