Feeling at ease with alienation is such fun, especially when Cate Blanchett is back on the London stage leading the Sydney Theatre Company in a new version by Martin Crimp of Big & Small, Botho Strauss’s story of a graphic designer called Lotte, all at sea in modern Germany.
Blanchett is one of the great actors of our day. On stage as well as on screen, she is like a thoroughbred hunting horse, a Grand National favourite, whinnying at the start and leaping the hurdles with grace and beauty throughout a show that, while testing, is not really all that rewarding. Is it not really all a little vieux chapeau?
I acclaimed the 1978 play when it was a surprising and adventurous West End vehicle for Glenda Jackson in 1983. Glenda, not yet my Labour MP, ran the gamut of disoriented victim, social misfit and grumbling old bag lady pushed from pillar to post by an uncaring society in a production which had great beauty and eloquence.
If nothing else, I suppose Strauss’s play, Gross und Klein, justifies Germany losing the last war and paying the price. Blanchett careens through the ten scenes without too much regard for social niceties, and small regard for her husband, presenting a picture of spirited dislocation, survival instinct and critical know-how.
She’s as fleshy, sinewy and aghast as a Lucian Freud painting in an illuminated telephone box and as physically sensual - and wonderfully expressive - as a Pina Bausch dancer in madly declaiming that she’s one of the righteous people determined to save the world.
But saving the world from what? More plays by Botho Strauss, perhaps. You can’t really believe that these versatile and likeable Australian actors have all that much in common with downtown Essen or wherever, nor does Martin Crimp’s translation succeed in making the crises and mishaps seem like a play for today.
These are old-fashioned, unexciting avant-garde leftovers, despite the slick ingenuity of Benedict Andrews’s production and a design by Johannes Schütz that whisks us from a hotel lobby in Morocco to a stairwell in a block of Teutonic flats where Lotte continues not making connections and an office where she plays secretarial second fiddle to a new boyfriend by dancing all over his paperwork.
All hail Cate Blanchett. But it seems regrettable that this great performer hasn’t marked the opening of the London 2012 Festival (prior to then London Olympics) with something either much more classical or much more contemporary. Or better.