Jamie Tabberer

Gross und Klein (Big and Small)

at Barbican Theatre, London

They say divorce is one of the hardest things a person can go through. It's certainly a sentiment echoed in Sydney Theatre Company's confident translation and reworking of this tale of isolation and estrangement by German playwright Batho Strauss.

So desperate and desperately lonely is our protagonist Lotte – a jittery, chain-smoking misfit, involuntarily separated from her abusive pig of a husband – that when we first meet her, alone on stage beneath stark light before a pitch black backdrop, she's reduced to eavesdropping on the conversations of unseen strangers for entertainment. It's a conversation she reiterates to the audience (or, perhaps, to no-one) with a bizarre sense of drama and profundity, in a rambling stream-of-consciousness that verges on annoying that sets the tone for the frustrating impenetrability of the disjointed storyline to come.

The difficult plot is underlined by a bleak, cold and skeletal set design and, most centrally, an aggressive and daring performance from Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett – an actress who, when in character, is astonishingly devoid of attachment to glamour or vanity. So intensely, relentlessly convincing as woman-on-the-edge Lotte is she, that, after three unpredictable hours, you'll likely leave the Barbican Centre feeling more disorientated than you came in (hands up if you ALWAYS get lost in there?). This show will leave you feeling tired and vaguely uncomfortable. Doesn't sound like a fun ride, does it? That's because it's not. If you're merely looking for the opportunity to gawp at a film star – and you could be forgiven for that – we'd advise waiting until another, lesser actor hits the London stage.

Boosting the sense of Alice in Wonderland-esque surreal is the use of humour: for such a challenging and upsetting theatre-going experience the producers are damned if not a minute goes by without fits of uncontrollable laughter sweeping the audience. We really shouldn't laugh – Lotte is losing her grip on reality, as such the behaviour she exhibits is going to be, shall we say, unusual. And yet, as she tries and fails to reconcile connections with long-lost friends or self-absorbed family members, or forge completely new ones with strangers on the street (or whose homes she randomly invades), it's often the wild, garish silliness that's to blame. We can't help but giggle, but feel guilty afterwards; an emotional response is manipulated out of us.

With the lion's share of the dialogue, Blanchett uses every zingy one-liner to full comedic effect (her ridiculously over the top repetition of the word "AMAZING!" quickly becomes a fail-proof running joke), underscored by fidgety, drunk-like body language and gurning, awestruck facial expressions (ALL traces of brooding sophistication and refinement from the actress's own personality are banished here). We're all familiar with the drunk uncle at a wedding analogy; Lotte is the female equivalent, someone you're torn between feelings of respect and disgust towards; warm and cold sentiments simultaneously; someone you're inclined to help, but, on other hand, want to retreat from so as to spectate from a safe distance the unfolding car crash. In this case, of course, you've no choice but to sit and watch and wonder if and when said car crash is coming, and it is at times excruciating. You fear for Lotte, because she seems so ground down and weak, but there in her optimism and faith in human relationships there's a strength that could prevail.

Despite appearances, this is not a one-woman show – Blanchett is strongly supported by a cast of 14. There's plenty of strong and equally committed acting on display. Each actor and actress creates multiple lasting impressions when each minor character sporadically seizes the audience's attention – albeit always briefly – and inadvertently reveals what disconnects them from wider society (senility, drug addiction and a hatred of one's own body, to name but a few). But none are bestowed enough time in the spotlight to reach any depth of characterisation...which is mightily frustrating. But this is Lotte's story and that's the way it has to be.

In fact, by the play's gruelling, physically-demanding climactic sequences, Blanchett's alone on stage once again – and she fills it completely. Productions this powerful don't come around very often, as such this one's not to be missed...just don't expect to enjoy it.


Barbican, London

Photographer: Lisa Tomasetti

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