Perched on something that resembles a massive window frame, Lotte (Cate Blanchett) eavesdrops on a pseudo philosophical conversation between two shadowy figures. She has no idea what they are talking about but is absolutely transfixed. She is on holiday but prefers hanging out, alone, in the hotel lobby. Lotte is a woman absorbed by life’s every little twitch and tremor, who longs to be involved, yet always seems apart from everything and everyone.
And so the scene is set for Botho Strauss’ surreal 1978 play, Big and Small, an intriguing glimpse at a lady hovering on the edge of life, trying to claw her way back in. The first half is a swift but careful stream of odd, jaunty images. We are shown a husband and wife, carrying out a brittle argument, after the wife catches her husband ‘spying’ on her sleeping self; ‘This will cause permanent, psychological damage’. Their dialogue gleams with the type of sharp hatred, carved out by years of unhappiness. And yet, despite all this emotional emptiness, this is the scene that lonely Lotte tries to invade.
Cate Blanchett is an incredible force on stage and the production would be so much less without her. She manages to make her character, Lotte (wearing pastel pink, Alice in Wonderland-themed costumes), both bafflingly innocent and wearingly knowing. She instils her character with real emotional honesty, despite the surreal sheen of the director Benedict Andrews’ world. She keeps the play human and adds great warmth and energy to a potentially sterile production.
Blanchett’s Lotte skips onwards, utterly unfazed by her warped surroundings. She walks through a door – isolated (even the walls cannot connect with each other) – and is perpetually accosted by topsy turvy images: a tent lunges at her, an old woman – her bra hanging out – is massaged by her husband and a huge lady, shoots up. Each snapshot suggests a world in which the senses have been skewed; why is that tent moving by itself, why are that old couple behaving like young lovers and why is the junky so damn big?
These unsettling encounters come to a head with a memorable, central scene. Lotte goes off in search of her best friend and tracks down her building. Designer, Johannes Schutz, nails the emotional context of this scene with his stark visuals. The best friend’s building is represented by a thin but looming wall, on which a door and intercom system is placed. Lotte slowly works her way through the buzzers, attempting to track down her friend and encountering all sorts of crusty, sleazy folks along the way. Soon enough, that thin wall is bursting with ugly, hidden life. When Lotte is finally let inside by her friend, only to be spat out again moments later, it feels like she’s just crept into the jaws of Hell.
The play does drop in the second half, as it tries too hard to hammer home its ideas. Martin Crimp’s translation is thankfully clipped and dry but even he cannot elegantly side step some particularly clunky statements. There is an especially jarring moment at the end – which stamps the mystery right out of things – when Lotte is left waiting in line, as everyone else is shown inside. An official approaches her: ‘Wasn’t your name called?’ ‘I’m just here,’ comes back Lottie’s gratingly existentialist reply.