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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