Theatre Review: Big and Small

Cate Blanchett gives a magnetic performance in Botho Strauss's play.

“I am a righteous person,” declares Lotte, the character played by Cate Blanchett in Botho Strauss’s play Big and Small (Gross und Klein), currently on show at Paris’s grand Théâtre de la Ville.  The sentence is comic, Lotte having just been caught rifling through a dustbin, and grappling for an excuse to make the moment seem less awkward.

Yet in many ways there is a touch of the visionary, a prophetic kind of quality to Lotte. Her Candidean perspective on things pervades this delicious production of the play by the Sydney Theater Company, and invites the audience to step through the looking glass into an adult Alice’s world.

This month marks the beginning of the Sydney Theatre Company’s whistle-stop tour of Europe with a newly re-translated script by British playwright Martin Crimp, and direction by Benedict Andrews, considered one of Australia’s most innovative voices in theatre. The production received rapturous reviews from the Australian press when it opened in Sydney last autumn, and also sees Cate Blanchett performing on stage in Paris for the first time.

The play follows Lotte’s journey as she tries to seek out her estranged husband Paul, whom she loves obsessionally - and delusionally. Lotte’s tragedy is the experience of human grief but with all the emotional understanding of a child. Time has not helped her overcome that initial, raw and indeed childlike-inducing wave of helplessness brought about by grief - in Lotte’s case, her husband leaving her. She is literally, trapped, something the set design and choreography deliberately emphasizes. Lotte, for example, looking up from the street to the tower block of her childhood friend Meggy’s apartment (who barely remembers who she is), forced to wait outside as no one will let her in. Or Lotte, once finally in the building, as she peers through the glass door of the apartment block into the street outside.

Blanchett’s performance is magnetic. In scenes with music, Lotte gets carried away, dancing wildly, again with all the innocence of a child, only stopping when she realizes others are watching .  As Blanchett dances away, running around the stage, Lotte's raw passion is mesmerising.

The audience observes the dreary world around Lotte. The couples who argue with venom; the children who fight with their parents; a young woman who injects herself with heroin. In one scene, the voice of Meggy coming through the entry phone of her apartment block taunts Lotte, daring her to be cruel. But Lotte does not know how. She craves companionship, but the world gives her none.

In the final scene, the stage becomes a kind of claire-obscure, with Lotte, so striking with her pale skin, pale hair, and pale clothes, set in relief against the dreariness of those next to her, and the darkness around her. Lotte lights up the stage, and for those last moments of the play, we are almost convinced that she may very well be "righteous" after all.

"Big and Small" opens at the Barbican, London EC2 on 13 April

Cate Blanchett, Photo: Liza Tomasetti
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism