Kalina Stefanova[1]

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Big and Small, written by Botho Strauss, directed by Benedict Andrews, performed by the Theatre Company of Sydney at the Barbican in London, April 2012.

On stage Cate Blanchett is unrealistically beautiful: she looks so perfect, as if she were computer-generated. When at the end of the first fragment, she makes a show of taking off a pair of fake eye-lashes and a complementary ponytail, the effect doesn’t change at all. It is as if there’s a magnifying glass in front of her—every detail of her face and her body is clearly visible from afar: the high cheek-bones and the hypnotizing blue-gray eyes, the sensuous mouth with a broad, yet not predatory smile, the long and strong legs and arms whose muscles vibrate with the harmony of natural health, without any effort, like those of a beautiful wild stallion or a cheetah. It’s people with that kind of face, body and aura who have inspired the phrase larger than life. Thanks to that kind of actress—a real rarity on stage—the definition of a classic star, with visibility and impact up to the last row of the balcony, with or without the help of technical devices, will never become a trite cliché. This is because the whole energy of that beauty, physical strength and mighty spirit gets channeled into the words: every syllable, every nuance and every inhale before uttering them resound so clearly, so convincingly and with such an air of weight that it’s as if golden coins drop from Blanchett’s mouth or as if every line she pronounces were written by Shakespeare himself.

And maybe this is the problem with the show! Here’s why:

Blanchett’s character, Lotte, is a lonely young woman who desperately tries to restore genuine relations and feelings in her life: with her husband (who has left her for another woman), with an ex-classmate, with relatives, with people in general. She wanders among remnants of conversations (on which she even eavesdrops and which she concocts in order to escape her loneliness) of human beings (who are rather humanoids), of human relations, even of human dwellings. The Magritte-like set (by the German Johannes Schütz) consists of sparse details just hinting at what the place is like—a thin corner of a room, a window frame, a door, surreally placed in the dark emptiness of the space, either disproportionately bigger than their dwellers or in a reduced scale, like the apartment building of the ex-classmate which is a little taller than Lotte (and out of which the ex-classmate never ventures—the intercom being enough of a means of communication)… In brief, everything in this show creates the feeling that alienation and the utmost materialism have already produced their Big Bang, and that people and objects are floating in the air, unaware of what has happened to them. Only Lotte has woken in and for this nightmare, and is desperately “tugging at the sleeve” of the whole world so that all people will wake up and will together go back to their normal human dimension.

That this doesn’t happen at once—or at all!—given that Lotte is none other than Blanchett, seems not dramatic but outright absurd. So magnetic, so outright scintillating is her personality, so disarmingly honest is her I-need-all-of-you cry that this whole humanoid-like ice world should melt in no time at the touch of her magic wand.

And could we actually care at all for the destiny of a world that can resist this irresistible Lotte?! Could we identify with its problems even for a moment? This world could easily fly away wherever it likes while Lotte could, in turn, cross the border between the stage and the audience, join us and be salvaged.

The phone booth scene with Cate Blanchettin Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.
The phone booth scene with Cate Blanchettin Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.

However, this would mean that our own world is salvaged too; that Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein of 1978—regarded as his masterpiece—is of no importance anymore, and why has the Theatre Company of Sydney bothered to take on staging it at all?!

That was the question I was asking myself all throughout the show. That was the question I kept asking myself for a long while afterwards as well. Yet, later on I discovered, to my great amazement, that it was thinking about the play more and more; moreover, that the play kind of insisted on my rethinking the whole show. Then I realized that the problem of the show was not the unevenness or even the discrepancy between its components (namely, the acting of Blanchett and the quality of the play) but of a lost balance between them: just as in an excellent orchestra where the conductor hasn’t signaled to the percussionists to quiet down so the string instruments can be better heard, harmony simply cannot be achieved despite all the musicians being first-class. (The “conductor”/director being in this case director Benedict Andrews, one of the most sought-after Australians in the profession today.)

Cate Blanchett as Lotte in Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.
Cate Blanchett as Lotte in Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.
Chris Ryan and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.
Chris Ryan and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small.

So now, when the “percussions” of Blanchett have already managed to calm down in my mind, I know why the Theatre Company of Sydney did take on staging Big and Small: it’s because this play is more than topical (especially in the new translation which avoids the references to the two Germanys of the time); it proves to have even been prophetic! It has foreseen the type of estrangement of our time: not merely the “old-fashioned” feeling of emptiness and loneliness due to alienation from one close person or even from many close people, but rather the feeling of a lack of gravity here on earth. That is to say, a shortage of spiritual gravity, of that particular freedom, courage and inner safety one gets imbued with only in the hug of love and via the inspiration of big ideas (again as a form of love but to people on the whole). In other words, Big and Small has foreseen the modern “floating” in life, without a profound and long-lasting communication of one’s soul with other souls—that encounter of souls being only a temporary meeting-point, or a respite from the outer-space loneliness so familiar to people today and so well described by writers like Haruki Murakami, for instance.

In one of the scenes, Blanchett is in a brightly lit-from-inside phone booth, with her hands against the glass and her eyes peering into the dark emptiness out there. Here she looks most like Lotte of the poster—and of the play!—a face, as if consisting only of big eyes, like that of an extraterrestrial, but a human extraterrestrial: frightened, asking, begging the others who no longer dare to communicate with their souls—or are not able to do so!—to become human beings again.


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[1] Dr. Kalina Stefanova is the author/editor of 12 books on theatre and criticism (three of them are in English; they were launched in New York and London and are on indicative reading lists in universities worldwide) and two books of fiction (the first has been published in nine countries). She was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at New York University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and at Meiji University, Japan, and has delivered lectures worldwide. She served as Vice President of IATC for two mandates (2001/2006) and as its Director of Symposia (2006-2010). She is currently a Full Professor of Theatre Criticism at NATFA, Sofia.

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In the Shadow of Cate Blanchett