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
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era