'Big and Small' review or 'Life through a smashed up looking glass.'

'Big and Small' (Gross and Klein), Botho Strauss. Trans by Martin Crimp
Barbican Theatre, Saturday April 14th 2012
Written for Culture Wars

Perched on something that resembles a massive window frame, Lotte (Cate Blanchett) eavesdrops on a pseudo philosophical conversation between two shadowy figures. She has no idea what they are talking about but is absolutely transfixed. She is on holiday but prefers hanging out, alone, in the hotel lobby. Lotte is a woman absorbed by life's every little twitch and tremor, who longs to be involved, yet always seems apart from everything and everyone.

And so the scene is set for Botho Strauss' surreal 1978 play, 'Big and Small'; an intriguing glimpse at a lady hovering on the edge of life, trying to claw her way back in. The first half is a swift but careful stream of odd, jaunty images. We are shown a husband and wife, carrying out a brittle argument, after the wife catches her husband 'spying' on her sleeping self; 'This will cause permanent, psychological damage'. Their dialogue gleams with the type of sharp hatred, carved out by years of unhappiness. And yet, despite all this emotional emptiness, this is the scene that lonely Lotte tries to invade.

Cate Blanchett is an incredible force on stage and the production would be so much less without her. She manages to make her character, Lotte (wearing pastel pink, Alice in Wonderland-themed costumes), both bafflingly innocent and wearingly knowing. She instils her character with real emotional honesty, despite the surreal sheen of the director Benedict Andrews' world. She keeps the play human and adds great warmth and energy to a potentially sterile production.

Blanchett's Lotte skips onwards, utterly unfazed by her warped surroundings. She walks through a door – isolated (even the walls cannot connect with each other) – and is perpetually accosted by topsy turvy images: a tent lunges at her, an old woman – her bra hanging out – is massaged by her husband and a huge lady, shoots up. Each snapshot suggests a world in which the senses have been skewed; why is that tent moving by itself, why are that old couple behaving like young lovers and why is the junky so damn big?

These unsettling encounters come to a head with a memorable, central scene. Lotte goes off in search of her best friend and tracks down her building. Designer, Johannes Schutz, nails the emotional context of this scene with his stark visuals. The best friend's building is represented by a thin but looming wall, on which a door and intercom system is placed. Lotte slowly works her way through the buzzers, attempting to track down her friend and encountering all sorts of crusty, sleazy folks along the way. Soon enough, that thin wall is bursting with ugly, hidden life. When Lotte is finally let inside by her friend, only to be spat out again moments later, it feels like she's just crept into the jaws of hell.

The play does drop in the second half, as it tries too hard to hammer home its ideas. Martin Crimp's translation is thankfully clipped and dry but even he cannot elegantly side step some particularly clunky statements. There is an especially jarring moment at the end – which stamps the mystery right out of things – when Lotte is left waiting in line, as everyone else is shown inside. An official approaches her: 'Wasn't your name called?' 'I'm just here,' comes back Lottie's gratingly existentialist reply.


  1. The Barbican is not one of my favourite theatres so it takes a good reason to lure me to East London. However, a second appearance of Cate Blanchett on the London stage proved too strong to resist. I missed her previous appearance in David Hare's "Plenty" so I was determined not to lose the opportunity to see one of cinema's most intelligent actresses again.

    It was only when I realised I would be watching a 160 minute German surrealist play that I began to have doubts. "Big and Small" ( Gross Und Klein) was written by Botho Strauss in 1978 and is presented by the Sydney Theatre company and will tour to other European venues.

    It starts with Cate Blanchett sitting at the front of the stage, listening to conversations (unheard to us) whilst on holiday in Morooco. Following the monologue we entered strange scenes with the Australian actress appearing through bedroom windows and then constantly entering doors for some confusing mini-tableaux.

    Eventually though the frenetic nature of the piece died down and as the audience becomes more acclimatised to the pace it becomes apparent that there is a coherent plot. We are following the exploits of Lotte a woman struggling to cope with the collapse of her marriage to Paul and see her (increasingly) desperate attempts to connect with old schoolfriends, family and ultimately the world.

    This may sound heavy, pretentious material but the play's triumph is its warmth, humanity and humour. The playwright never allows us to laugh at the characters, only the situations eg a sleeping bag inhabited by a person avoiding the world, a seemingly normal family barbecue descending to chaos etc. These pieces are not designed to belittle Lotte but conversely show that none of us are totally inter-connected.

    This is theatre on a grand scale. The production values are impressive with the scenery changes slik and effortless allowing these vignettes to flow naturally. The cast is surprisingly large (14) for a touring company and although obviously one performer dominates proceedings, her co-stars all have their moments in the spotlight.

    But, of course the reason most people are here is to watch the Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett and she does not disappoint. Increasingly, film stars appear on the West End stage (often when their career is waning) in well-established plays , "Driving Miss Daisy", "The Sunshine Boys", "The Children's Hour" etc. It is therefore extremely impressive that she selected such an ambitious and demanding (both physically and mentally) piece. ( How she manages to perform twice on a matinee day is beyond me!) A succession of curtain calls from a packed, appreciative audience (no doubt relieved this was not as avant-garde as they had feared) proved she was right.

    A wondrous evening was perfectly concluded having spotted Rufus Wainwright sitting next to the Duke & Duchess of Kent . A truly surreal night.


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