I have this terrible habit of booking tickets to plays that sound interesting then months later, moments before curtain up, I realise I haven't got a clue what the plot is and wonder if I'm going to be sat for three hours in the dark, literally and metaphorically. I had a bad Beckett experience once.
For this one - German play Big and Small (Gross und Klein) at the Barbican - I must have read the description that it was a 'delicately surreal play. Whisking us down a rabbit hole and into a wonderland-like world.' That alone wouldn't have made me buy tickets. It was the fact Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Babel, The Aviator) was in the lead role and quite honestly I'd pay money to see her act out my shopping list. Her hummus would be phenomenal.
The play starts with Cate's character Lotte drinking a cocktail alone and talking to the audience about a conversation she's overhearing at a Moroccan holiday resort. We realise she's estranged from her husband, alienated from her tour group and is in awe of the couple she's spying on. She's funny, frank and seems slightly bonkers. The kind of person that would talk to a stranger on the tube and receive a withering look in exchange.
Scene two: she's back in Germany and stops at a window, joining in a conversation with a couple as the woman dresses, before the curtains are drawn in Lotte's face. 'I'm just being completely open so I can respond to you as a person,' she implores.
It goes on like this, one scene after another of Lotte meeting people who appear to have no connection with one another. What was the relevance of the Moroccan conversation? And how is it related to the woman dressing? I like to suss out the villain in a Poirot episode so for me this was a little dissatisfying and confusing.
Lotte goes on to be ostracised by a childhood friend, holes herself up in a phonebox trying to ring her ex, is reunited with her brother's odd family and there are 10 scenes like this. Her plight seems a sad and lonely one and then it dawns on me that there is a plot; her quest to try and find a meaningful connection.
Given this could be a depressing storyline, from the start the play is oddly funny. Lotte herself is without self pity. Cate's talent at physical comedy is clear when she's attacked by a girl in a tent or when she's doing an impression of God in a deep voice, as well as her wildly entertaining slapstick dancing.
The set is minimal but clever and scene changes are accompanied by an eclectic, lively soundtrack. I loved the phone booth that spun slowly as the phone rang and rang, the echo of it reinforcing the melancholy of the situation.
Cate Blanchett has won awards, as well as standing ovations, for this exhausting role and I can see why. She's central to every scene and although you perhaps can't relate to the character, who can be peculiar - delivering a letter on a sledge in a crash helmet - she evokes sympathy; you want her to succeed, to not be taken advantage of. It's hard though to imagine anyone but Cate bringing the same qualities to this challenging role.
It ends as she sits in a doctor's waiting room, watching as it empties around her. It eventually becomes clear that she's not got an appointment but is there for the company. 'I'm here and there's nothing wrong with me,' she says. She's right, there isn't.
The explanation for the play's title is that at times Lotte, like Alice in Wonderland, is too big for some situations, too small for others. My take was that it highlighted big versus small mindedness. Lotte's capacity for seeing the good in people and putting herself out there compared with the brick walls others have built up over time. I'm a pretty hardened London commuter but I like to think next time someone talks to me at the nightbus queue I'll be a little less judgemental and more open. Definitely if it's Cate Blanchett.
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