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REVIEW: Gross Und Klein | Sydney Theatre

Cate Blanchett in Gross Und Klein | Sydney Theatre (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Poor, lonely Lotte; also known as Cate Blanchett. She’s a misfit; a gentle, optimistic soul, heartbroken and rejected, but continually exhibiting the courage to continue. Prolific German playwright Botho Strauss’ Gross Und Klein first saw light of day as far back as 1978, long before the fall of the wall, in 1989, and the decompartmentalisation, physically, culturally, militarily, politically and socioeconomically, of Berlin.

Despite its engaging humour and magical, surrealistic, fairytale-like qualities, Big And Small, to give it its English title, isn’t an easy play to penetrate. Oh sure, it’s easy to feel for lost, little (notwithstanding Blanchett’s lithe, lanky frame) Lotte, but what is the particularity of this play from a German perspective; then, and now? After all, 1978 might’ve been a good 30 years after the war, but Germans were, presumably, trying to forgive themselves the Holocaust, while much of the rest of the world still wagged a wary finger. Much of this self-approbation likely took the form of denial, as the nation absorbed itself with economic and cultural reconstruction. Perhaps that’s why references to Hitler in the play are so few and far between but, more tellingly, are chucked into the ether apropos of nothing, like a word that just popped out in a fit of Tourette’s.

It’s a three-hour play that doesn’t really feel like it. This, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the minimalistic, but superbly art directed, set design, by Johannes Schutz, which, I think it’s fair to say, sports a distinctively European sensibility and aesthetic. It’s Teutonic, in the very best sense. It’s beautiful form stems, ostensibly, from the fact that everything serves a specific narrative, stylistic or other function. The other thing that rivets the concentration is one’s quest to determine what’s really going on here. A quest largely unfulfilled but, one supposes, one that might well find further exposition with repeated readings or viewings. Like a mouth-filling wine, perhaps, much of the complexity is on the back-palate, and finish.

Ah yes, the finish. For me, it was the very last line that really made the whole experience worthwhile and which humanised it: “I’m here, and there’s nothing wrong with me.” After all, it’s the epiphany of individual self-acceptance we all long for and, in Germany’s case, the one it must arrive at, if it hasn’t already. The poignancy of such, in a national (as against nationalistic) collective sense is that it implies and acknowledges the rough road travelled; it intimates forgiveness and, thereby, fault. A very different thing from head-in-the-sand industriousness, as a mass distraction from tragic truth.

If Cate’s agent wanted to secure a theatrical niche to cement public perception of her as one of the greatest actors this country’s ever produced, he or she could’ve found no better showcase than this play. My companion, particularly, thrilled and marvelled at her superbly nuanced, consummate, commanding performance: she put nary a foot nor gesture wrong; so much so, that even a distinguished cast, including the likes of veteran, Lynette Curran, while not exactly paling by comparison, couldn’t help but be thrust into the background. Yes, Lotte is the central character, but Blanchett made her even more the anchor. Cate is cool.

I’m dying to get the skinny on why it was Benedict Andrews replaced the German director slated for the task, as I just love theatrical scuttlebutt, but, as one who studiously remains outside the inner circle, I can only but wildly speculate. Let’s hope the reasons weren’t too mundane. Of course, not knowing at precisely what point Andrews entered the fray makes it impossible to cast aspersions, hurl brickbats or throw bouquets at either director. Suffice to say, I would’ve made different casting decisions. Which isn’t to say there are any crook performances here. It’s just that, I suspect, there might’ve been other actors better-suited to certain roles.

Much as I love Sophie Ross (and I do), and as much as her versatility is boasted in several roles herein, isn’t it downright lazy, apart from any other considerations, to include one of Sydney Theatre Company’s (The) Residents? After all, there are many good-to-great, starving actors out there, and Ross already has a steady day job and multiple opportunities. Hey, just asking!

If there was a standout scene, it was arguably that involving Richard Pyros and Blanchett, separated by a diagonal row of desks and chairs, in the office of a big bureaucracy. Pyros matched Blanchett blow-for-blow, in a scintillating, tour de force, acting matchup of heavyweight champions. Curran aside, the remainder of the cast didn’t seem capable of quite matching the superhuman energy of these two, between whom sparks flew, right out into the audience.

Also notable was the Alice In Wonderland-like scene, in which Lotte stands outside a downsized apartment block, holding court and conversation over the intercom; as with the office scene, an ingenious device for denoting distance and dissonance between estranged friends. As aesthetically compelling was Lotte all alone in a phonebox, soliloquising; a veritable Hasmlette, in a breathtakingly cinematic setting.

I saw the play last night. In the inevitable prising and teasing apart among peers that comes at interval and apres, I candidly confessed, to anyone prepared to listen, having little of no clue as to what it was or is about. The new dawn has brought new dawnings which, surely, must be the measure of any truly fine work of art. I stood ready to condemn. Now, I stand ready to applaud a fifth curtain call. Ich bin ein Berliner!

Robert Menzies and Cate Blanchett in Gross Und Klein (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

The details: Gross Und Klein plays Sydney Theatre until December 23. Tickets on the company website.

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  • 1
    Weber Markus
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lloyd,
    just to ease your question: Benedict Andrews replaced the German directing giant Luc Bondy on short notice because of Luc’s unexpected back surgery, which did not let him take a long flight. Mr Andrews was faced with a set designed designed by Bondy and Schuetz. In addition, the word Hitler is not mentioned because he has nothing to do with the play. I only say this since I directed one of the many productions of Big and Small back then in Germany and do believe that the play has nothing to do with the 2nd WW or Hitler. On an other note, there is nothing Teutonic in the Schuetz set design. It is just an example of set design at its best. (At times badly utilised by Andrews.) No more said.
    Love reading your elaborates,especially when you cannot distinguish between an actor putting on an act or having stage fright. Your reviews are always entertaining my brain.

    Markus Weber

  • 2
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    actually, hitler is mentioned. distinctly. I hate to mention the war, but there you are. it just won’t go away. many thanks for your condescending comments. who, do you s’pose, had stage fright? as for your other value judgements, we’ll agree to disagree, ok?

  • 3
    Weber Markus
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I was actually commenting on “Perhaps that’s why references to Hitler in the play are so few” as being irrelevant for this play. And I was the one wigth “stage fright” mentioned in an otherwise wonderful review for Maria De Marco’s “M.A.” It’s ok – ok?

  • 4
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    aha. I’m ok; you’re ok. well, I’m ok, anyway. but the war can hardly be construed as irrelevant, if the playwright specifically mentioned hitler. and the war can never be irrelevant to germany, germans, or german culture. not after the disposal of, conservatively, up to 12 million jews, roma, homosexuals, communists, blacks and others. even if it weren’t alluded to, it would still be relevant.

  • 5
    Weber Markus
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    You are obviously not “OK anyway”. Your figures are correct and agreed. And yes, what happened is still relevant as is Russians killing Jews, Polish and whatever they could get their hands on in the name of communism. And yes, it is true as is South Africa with Apartheid, Israel with Palestinians, China with their students, Chile, Mexico, Vietnam, Chorea, Iran, and, and, and…The US. The point is , we are talking about Theatre, existing longer and more successful than all the abuse, killing, humiliation and whatever the human race needs to believe that life is a sad and devastating place and only death can bring us peace and enlightenment. I am Austrian and therefor happy to be allowed to accept life as the greatest gift. And yes, I know that Hitler was an Austrian.
    I am aware that it is about living this life to the full, as I am aware that it can’t be survived. It has to be lived. And Gross und Klein is one of those rare plays that shows us where we go wrong in living it. All said. You are OK anyway. I am not, as long we all do not understand what actually is important: Listening, feeling, caring and avoiding destruction. You are OK, I am not. And I like it not to be OK.

  • 6
    Jeepers
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Enthralling.

    I mean the comments. Possibly the review. The first half of the play too. Not sure about the half after the interval.

  • 7
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    holy cow, markus! what the?!

  • 8
    Weber Markus
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Exactly. However, I did not dance around the holy cow.
    And yes, what the !? Might be intersting to meet and work it out?
    If you can stand an abnoxious alpine Tyrolian knowing a bit about life and especially theatre :)

  • 9
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    might be interesting. or not. but I make a point of strenuously avoiding contact with people who know of life. or theatre. or reckon they do.

    btw, the word is obnoxious. and is redundant.

  • 10
    Montanari Giorgio
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    A thrilling play.

    I didn’t think it was about the war or that the last sentence made sense of it all (how mundane it would have been!).

    I felt that its strength was in its “scambledness”, a step further from hard to decipher symbolism or hard to swallow absurd theatre.

    It felt that I had no sure key to interpret and read the play, but the effect was thrilling and mysterious: Lotte herself put in various situations without continuity seemed to be in my very own shoes, without much clue of what was going on, not looking for answers, but trying to cope as things are thrown at her, and feeling all the spectrum of possible emotions.

    I wonder if the rather conservative approach to music wasn’t, after all, a double bluff: some experimental or avant-garde music would have matched the writing style, but at the expense of the creepy sense of familiarity that every scene (no matter how absurd) always had.

    The audience seemed glued to their chairs: great proof that unfamiliar material can go down well if handled correctly.

  • 11
    Montanari Giorgio
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    One more thing on Sophie Ross. I think it’s actually a wise choice to use the resident actors in such a high profile show, and build a recognisable and experienced group that can attract the public once the big stars are gone.

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