“Beautifully organised displays of despair”: Cate Blanchett in the Botho Strauss play “Big and Small”
As luck would have it, I was in Paris last week for the European premiere of the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Big and Small by Botho Strauss, starring Cate Blanchett. This version used a newly-commissioned English translation from by the British playwright Martin Crimp. Big and Small (the allusion is first and foremost to Alice in Wonderland) is an episodic play of a dozen scenes in which we follow Lotte Kotte (Blanchett) on a road trip, struggling to make sense of her life after separating from her husband.
Gross und Klein (as it’s called in German) was first staged in 1978 and its themes are redolent of that era: alienation, the inability to communicate, and utter disdain for bourgeois life. Scenes are full of conversations overheard and half-heard and communications devices – telephones, intercoms, and a tiny portable television set – which serve only to limit Lotte’s ability to communicate. Lotte suffers from moments of inarticulation that Blanchett pulls off with stunning eloquence as she suddenly erupts into stammering, wordless speech or spasmodic, liberating dance steps.
Strauss was the subject of an essay in A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W.G. Sebald: “Myth and Mythology in the Drama of Botho Strauss” by Irmela Schneider. Although she doesn’t discuss Gross und Klein, Schneider’s commentary on several other plays by Strauss contain references that seem equally applicable to this play, including Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas and the writing of Peter Handke, especially The Left-Handed Woman. “What characterises” Strauss’ plays, she writes, is “the insistence that while the search may be something meaningful in itself, it can no longer produce any meaning.”
In his own Introductory Remarks to this volume, Sebald offered a fairly cool response to Strauss’ work:
Strauss may not have remained sufficiently resistant to the temptations of beautifully organised displays of despair, which can be as insincere as they are ostentatious. On the other hand it is true to say that Strauss does attempt to reflect the process which gave rise to the discontinuity in his dramatic inventions. His plays mark a phase of societal evolution where the dynamics of social intercourse have become almost entirely opaque and where conflict – the stuff of drama – can only be represented, figuratively, in terms of battles fought and lost many times before.
A play like Big and Small is a very gutsy undertaking for someone like Blanchett, but it’s clear why Lotte is so appealing as a character (Blanchett calls her “a female Candide”). Lotte is on stage nearly every minute of the more than two hour-long play and her mercurial emotions provide an extraordinary canvas on which to work. Lotte is a physically and emotionally demanding role as she teeters precariously between optimism and despair within the space of a single sentence.