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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage