Caught up with Cate
Australian actress Cate Blanchett triumphs in Botho Strauß’ Big and Small at the Wiener Festwochen; a study in post-war alienation, and even more poignant today
"Did you hear that?" Eyes wide with astonishment, a waif-like Cate Blanchett sits alone at the edge of a vast stage at the MuseumsQuartier, feet dangling over the side. "Two men! Talking! Amaaaazing!" Her voice gushes up like a fountain of sound, from somewhere deep inside. It’s startling, absurdly vivid, which is just about how the world seems to the ill-fated "Lotte" in Botho Strauß’ 1978 play Big and Small (Groß und Klein) at the Wiener Festwochen. In a crisp new English translation by Martin Crimp, Big and Small arrived in Vienna from London, on tour with Blanchett and The Sydney Theatre Company following its premiere in Australia in November.
Out of work and out of her marriage, Lotte has taken a package tour to Morocco, hoping for a new beginning. She is irrepressibly optimistic, determined to reconnect. The tiniest thing is a discovery. It’s a naive wonder that we see in Blanchett’s unguarded, childlike gestures, yet her neurotic desperation we hear in the symphonic range of her voice. The portrayal is endearing, but also tragic, and utterly astonishing, flashing in and out of moods, even world views, in a virtuosic enactment of growing estrangement and loss.
"I don’t find it easy being on holiday with no one to talk to," Lotte confesses, startled to discover she has spoken her thoughts aloud. And as she continues on her minimalist odyssey of emotional defeat, she becomes increasingly realistic, and irretrievably alone.
Conceived in the disembodied tradition of Samuel Beckett, Strauß’ play has been described as a study in postwar alienation. This it may be, but as an authentic portrait of life in contemporary Europe – where nearly one-third of all households now consist of one person – it has only become more true with time. As Lotte’s journey progresses, she is turned away by both neighbours and passers-by, roughly rejected by her husband and brushed aside by an old school friend, a potential employer, even by her own brother. And perhaps most devastating, in this lost world, there is no depending on the kindness of strangers.
From the proximity of film, here Cate Blanchett must expand to the vast emotional scale of the stage, where the intimate becomes larger than life. On that Sunday afternoon in May, she was fully equal to the task.