Big and Small – Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican Theatre, until April 29th 2012
Boho Strauss’1970’s play Big and Small has been given a new translation by every A-level student’s favourite writer, Martin Crimp, and a major box office draw has been added in the form of Cate Blanchett. Sporting a spare but striking visual motif that weaves in moments from Alice in Wonderland, the resulting production is crisp and clean but remains a mixed-bag; both in terms of structure and in terms of quality. Director Benedict Andrews introduces some lovely elements throughout but it often feels that he is having to work very hard with not a great deal of material – although it should be pointed out that ‘not a great deal of material’ manages to fill over 2½ hours of stage time.
The main challenge for the production is its unevenness; a fragmented, dream-like structure is an appropriate choice for a play charting an individual’s experience of social alienation, and a lack of an obvious direct narrative helps capture the essence of isolation rather than the reasons behind it. It is attempting a theatre of poetry rather than a theatre of stories.
The unevenness relates to a lack of balance; the first half feels ponderous and slow, a series of scenes acting as snapshots of a multi-occupancy house induced a level of tedium due to scene changes that took longer than the actual scenes, and there is a free-wheeling lack of focus that suggests a play that is struggling to understand what it wants to be. At times it even struggles to place in time – referencing nanotechnology and euros but with TV’s from the 1970s and conversations about post-war Germany.
In comparison the play flies along after the interval. Crimp seems to have found voices in the supporting cast with the result of them becoming more than ciphers for Cate Blanchett’s Lotte to bounce off. The scenes enjoy a certain dynamism and even the fragmentary structure gains a coherence, as Lotte’s mounting alienation becomes much starker.
The second half is full of striking images; the opening scene is a wonderful monologue set in a phone box spotlighted in the centre of the vast Barbican stage. This morphs wonderful into a nail-bitingly hilarious family set piece that come across as the surreal twin of Abigail’s Party. The potential of the play, and an implicit criticism, is in the fact that most scenes in the second half had the potential to be one-act plays in their own right.
The play itself hinges on Lotte, and Cate Blanchett’s central performance, as the alienated and alienating heroine, is so spectacularly and unexpectedly unrestrained in someone most known for their poise, and as far removed from a Hollywood stereotype as you can imagine, that it almost does enough to rescue the play. The auditorium almost crackles with energy whenever Blanchett’s takes Lotte into a new gear.
It really needs to go without saying that is a magnificent performance. It is the performance of an actor being given, and giving back, complete freedom to act with a capital A. Blanchett goes through every page of the actors handbook in portraying Lotte (including some dancing that may have been stolen from the Ministry of Silly Walks), and does it with the enthusiasm of someone who knows that this is a rare luxury that is unlikely to be encouraged when working for Peter Jackson somewhere on Middle-Earth.
However the elephant in the room must be addressed: would this play have been produced if it wasn’t for the convenient fact that Blanchett on stage is a sure-fire global hit? The answer must be a no – it is a long, difficult and at times flawed play. The production generally works well despite some questionable missteps. The ensemble cast do a fine job in working with what they are given, whilst the sight of Blanchett dialling the acting up to ten is undeniably enjoyable
Despite this it cannot be enough to go to the theatre just to watch a virtuoso performance primarily to see whether a famous actress is as good on stage as they are on screen. The play must match the performer and as good as Blanchett is, she cannot redeem this one.