Review: Big and Small

The words ‘Seventies German Expressionism’ are enough to fill even the most ardent theatre-goer with dread, but Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small isn’t all doom and gloom.

It’s pouring rain outside, and the mood in the foyer of the Barbican Centre is giddy – everyone seems relieved to be indoors. As we take our seats and the house lights go down, however, a tangible silence of anticipation fills the theatre.

Suddenly, sitting alone on the edge of the stage, peering over her shoulder, her face hidden from us, is Cate Blanchett. Let’s be honest: she’s what we’ve all come to see. In her opening monologue, Blanchett immediately charms her audience as Lotte, a vibrant and enthusiastic woman in her mid-30s, holidaying in Agadir. She is scatty, childish, thirsty for knowledge, and she is played to perfection, with more than a hint of Grey Gardens’ Little Edie.

But as Lotte’s story unfolds before us in a series of vignettes scenes, her vibrancy dwindles, her passion for life is dimmed, and she becomes the kind of woman you’d cross the road to avoid. Blanchett changes, too. She is a chameleon – not only acting with every inch of her body, but doing so unpredictably, viscerally. It is a bravura performance, at times reminding me of Toni Collette’s Murial, at others Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Duboius (perhaps a hangover from Blanchett’s own turn in Streetcar with the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009). It is as heartbreaking as it is volatile, and moreover, one that few actresses today could accomplish with such might.

From what little I know or have read of Botho Strauss, I cannot believe Big and Small (Gross und Klein), in its original form, could be so amusing. But it is in the play’s comedy that Blanchett locates the emotional core of her story: we all know a Lotte, the life and soul of the party – that friend who drinks too much or does crazy or dangerous or stupid things, but who entertains us, and who we love. But what happens when that person is older, alone, and relying on the kindness of strangers?

Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton became Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009, but this is the first of their productions to be staged in London. The production’s supporting cast was faultless and, coupled with one scene-stealing turn from a small tent, it’s not hard to suggest that the Sydney Theatre Company may be producing some of the best theatre in the world today, and it would be foolish to even attempt to claim that Blanchett is not the greatest actress at work today.

Words: Jack Casey