THEN. Berlin. 08.12.1978, 11:15 pm. It is over. Dead silence in the audience. As if no one wants to breathe. Then we all got on our feet, applauded and cheered for 30 minutes. We just had witnessed epoch-making theatre directed by Peter Stein and celebrated by his impeccable protagonist, Edith Clever. We also witnessed a leading lady speaking in broad dialect in a German drama for the first time.
NOW. Sydney, 19th November 2011, 11 pm. It is over. There is a moment of silence, and then we realise that this is how the play ends. Lotte bows and the crowd erupts in bravos, without giving a standing ovation.
We have just witnessed the last and biggest production of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2011 season. GROSS UND KLEIN has been co-commissioned by Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Barbican London, the London 2012 Festival, Théâtre de la Ville and Wiener Festwochen, and will tour internationally in the new year. That is Big. We also witnessed Cate Blanchett starting the play with a hint of Aussie slang, a Small sign that this production may have something to do with our own reality Down Under?
Lotte, a middle-aged jobless graphic designer, is facing the agony of an incomprehensible divorce. She suffers through a terribly lonely and useless holiday in Morocco only to return to Germany to attempt a reconciliation with her estranged husband. He brutally rejects her and she embarks on a fruitless search across Germany during which she looks for possibilities to reconnect with her husband, to find old and new friends, to seek a rock to lean on, communication, proximity and hopefully enlightenment.
The Ten Stations of her journey are filled with Bible quotes as well as hints from the history of philosophy. (Strauss is well known for his affection for the work of Theodor W. Adorno.) She wanders through the German world of labour, leisure and family disasters. The contemporaries she meets are all barely accessible.
At a locked entrance of a residential silo, at the bus stop or in a doctor’s waiting room: wherever she goes, even with all her desperate seeking, she encounters dismissive people who try to numb their own loneliness and inner emptiness with alcohol, drugs, abuse, or obsessive TV viewing, and by entrenching themselves behind intercoms, locked doors, or phones. Lotte, who constantly meddles because she means well, repeatedly is ruled out, but refuses to give up. Her faith to find companionship, sensitivity and humanity is unshakeable – until she starts to lose more and more of herself!
When Botho Strauss’ Ten Station Drama Gross und Klein premiered thirty-three years ago, the German drama critics were enthused. Strauss became an instant dramatic giant and Lotte! rose to be the deputy psychosocial figure of a present-damaged Federal Republic of Germany at the time. Strauss sceptically eyes his fellow members of the human race and comments on them with sarcastic and at times cynical punch lines. They still work and can make you smile and even laugh. But to burst out in laughter when there is nothing to laugh about? Maybe Benedict Andrews, who took over as director from the German directing giant Luc Bondy due to sickness, felt too Big or too Small to trust the text as is and opted for comic relief as his saviour.
Andrews also had to deal with the fact that he had to take over a set design, which Johannes Schütz created in collaboration with Bondy. Whoever directs the enormously complex and multi-faceted GROSS UND KLEIN, will inevitably face the decision as to how serious she/he will take the misery of interpersonal bleakness that freeze-shocks poor Lotte’s mind repeatedly.
More to the point could Lotte’s troubled journey really only happen in a contemporary Germany? Her home town of Saarbrücken could be Newcastle, Wollongong or Wagga Wagga. Essen might be Melbourne and the island of Sylt, could be the Whitsunday Islands. The previously mentioned hint of and Aussie slang then would make sense.
There is a moment when I see Andrews’ vision as a director. When the man at the helm of Station No. 8: Dictation turns into an elephant. A vicious Lotte just had pulled her dress over his head. He loads one of the desks on his shoulders and stumbles off the stage. An elephant labouring for his superiors! Before he had insisted that he is NOT a high commissioner, that he is NOT in charge of anything but a little, insignificant department at the local council. If all the set changes would have been executed like this magic moment, we would have been part of an epoch making Sydney theatre event.
With Schütz as set designer, the journey starts as expected with a startling and compelling imagination of an evening on the terrace of an empty Moroccan hotel dining room. A stark white low terrace wall across the front of the stage, framed by a thin white line around the proscenium, the evening star high above in the far distance, two hardly visible shadows walking up and down in the pitch black darkness and Lotte, aka Cate Blanchett, almost sitting on the laps of her audience.
The evening ends at that very same white wall, now functioning as a waiting bench in a family clinic. This simple wall symbolises the start and finish line of GROSS UND KLEIN. This is the art of stage setting at its best!
Schütz created stringent sets for all of the Ten Stations. Sadly enough, they were misplaced at times. In Station No. 5: Big and Small, the set is too close to the audience, when distance was needed to understand that Lotte’s effort to find communication via an intercom at the entrance of a residential high-rise could only be achieved by crawling through a rabbit hole. In addition, it does not help the imagination when the acting ensemble has to fill in as stagehands. Especially when they set scenes that they are not involved in, like in Station No. 8: Dictation!
Thirteen fabulous actors support Lotte on her disastrous endeavour to find acceptance in a wasteland of heartlessness. They are Lynette Curran, Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Katrina Milosevic, Sophie Ross Josh McConville, Robert Menzies, Yalin Ozucelik, Richard Piper, Richard Pyros, Chris Ryan, Christopher Stollery and Martin Vaughan.
They form a strong, honest and at all times extremely brave ensemble. They give us glimpses of tits and a dick. They are not afraid to be vulnerable, excessively brutal and abusive. They create the platform strong enough to carry the Colossus of Ródhos and definitely, Lotte plays Cate Blanchett plays Lotte.
I first saw Cate Blanchett on stage in 1993 playing the Bride/Felice in Timothy Daly’s Kafka Dances. She just had graduated from NIDA and filled the stage with a presence and aura bigger than the Stables Theatre. And here she is now. A Titan of acting. Her Lotte utilises every single register of her art. At times, it looks like she has a hidden freighter carrying her tools with her on stage.
Most of the 2 hours and forty minutes she captures the space. She starts Big and crosses the finishing line of this emotional marathon almost Bigger. Personally, I would have loved seeing her end it Small. She conquers the task with an almost brutal force and fearlessness. Even when she is dressed in an awkward golden glittering show costume and asks, “Why am I bleeding?” while realistic blood gushes down her legs, she stays in charge. (Costumes by Alice Babidge) Why she is wearing that costume is questionable!
Lotte does not need costume changes! She wears her soul on the outside. That is the only costume she needs. Ms Blanchett’s repertoire of voices, gestures, movements and emotions exceeds the commonly known facets of light and colours.
Was this the problem for Benedict Andrews? When a director is faced with such, possibly untameable, talent he quickly has to find his own titanic powers. His decision, to transform the drama into a consumable comedy, allows Blanchett to portray Lotte as a slightly schizophrenic nutter sliding unstoppably into the darkness of unavoidable psychosis. It could have been the more touching and devastating decline of a heartbroken woman into the silence of speechlessness, caused by an unforgiving and self-centred society. Nevertheless watching Lotte playing Cate Blanchett playing Lotte is one of these rare moments of contemporary theatre. She is mesmerizing!
In one of his later works, Botho Strauss describes what it means to explore sensitivities, ‘It is like the attempt to nail soapsuds onto a wall.’ This explains it all and makes GROSS UND KLEIN timeless concrete.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the world you are living in, go and see GROSS UND KLEIN. If you are willing to understand how important it is to smile at a stranger when she/he does not expect it, go and see this play. If you can forget about seeing Lotte playing Cate Blanchett playing Lotte, go and understand how important it is to lend a hand when someone in distress is ready to jump into the abyss. If you are ready to think Big, take the ones you love, if you are able to think Small, take the ones you hate. If you are honest, you will feel Gross, if you think you are on top of it all, you may realise that you are Klein.
GROSS UND KLEIN at the Sydney Theatre Company is offering you a theatrical revelation. That is all that counts in contemporary drama. No matter how good or bad. I commend this production as being brave and true. That is more than we get in our daily news.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s production, in association with the USB Investment Bank, of GROSS UND KLEIN (Big and Small) opened at the Sydney Theatre on Saturday November 19 and runs until Friday 23rd December, 2011.