Cate shines through the German gloom

THEATRE BIG AND SMALL

The Barbican
***

LATE seventies German avant-garde theatre is not generally something I’d cross town to see, let alone spend money on.

But for Big and Small (Gross und Kleine) by Botho Strauss, one of Germany’s most-performed playwrights, I’d make an exception. With the exquisite Cate Blanchett starring as Lotte, the manic, pitiable central character, it could have been experimental Inuit theatre and I’d have been there.

Big could refer to Blanchett’s performance in this Sydney Theatre Company show: a radiant, passionate, ever-changing and sometimes highly comic one. Small could refer to the depth of the other characters and of the play’s overall meaning, which isn’t much more than a long jab at the shoddiness of your average selfish Joe in a secular, industrialised society. (Albeit one with Hitler still very much on the mind, as he was in 1978, when the play opened in Germany.)

The play’s title could also refer to its structure: a big whole composed of small parts. A series of skits that looks at the theme of rejection and alienation from various angles, the play charts Lotte’s descent from shunned wife to maniacal outcast. Each scenario shows her at a different stage of loneliness and desperation following the brutal rejection by her husband Paul, a journalist.

The opening scene would have been dire in the wrong hands: in Blanchett’s, it’s amusing, humane and sad. Lotte sits on a windowsill of a hotel in Agadir, Morocco, where she’s on a package holiday (but refusing to pay for extras). She’s transfixed by the sound of two businessmen conversing outside her window. “Amazing!” she keeps saying, in an Australian twang that, weirdly, works very well. She relays their words, whose loftiness she likes, with an impressive degree of intelligence but also with a groaning sexual thirst that’s part lust but even more about a deep yearning for human company of any sort. She’s truly a woman alone.

Then Lotte is back in Germany, popping up at people’s windows and talking to them uninvited, attempting to rent a room in the building in which her ex-husband now lives with his lover. In the longest scene, Lotte stands outside an apartment building in Essen trying every buzzer in the hope of finding an old school friend, whose surname has changed. In the end, the friend turns out to be a monstrous shrew incapable of providing any of the affection or humanity Lotte is searching for. As she waits and buzzes, a parade of characters – a yob and his girlfriend; a paralytic Turk and his be-furred wife – pass by, adding curious vignettes of the banal to Lotte’s struggle.

The second half of the play is harder to follow and more absurdist: Lotte finds God in a hysterical piece of physical theatre, clad in a wondrous spangly leotard. She then continues being rejected and shunned in an office, at a bus stop, and finally in a doctor’s waiting room, where she doesn’t have an appointment. More absurd does not mean more interesting or more meaningful, and although Blanchett continues to bring an intense pathos and energy to her role, one can’t help but feel that she’s being wasted. Strauss’s play should have quit while it was ahead: after the first act. The second act doesn’t add anything new, and makes play smaller – or at least emptier – than it need have been.

Until 29 April at the Barbican. For tickets, go to www.barbican.org.uk or call 020 7638 4141.