Review: Big And Small (Gross und Klein) – Barbican Theatre, London

Can you separate a single performance from the theatrical whole? It’s a quandary posed by Sydney Theatre Company’s Gross und Klein (Big and Small) being performed at the Barbican Theatre as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Much attention has been given to the piece, often around the appearance of the one of the company’s joint artistic directors in the central role. When that artistic director is Cate Blanchett the interest is perhaps understandable, Blanchett making her first London stage appearance in over 13 years.

Of course Blanchett is an accomplished stage actress, a fact that some media seem to have ignored by focusing on her film career, and isn’t taking that ‘hollywood star wanting stage experience’ route that so many star casting vehicles tread.

It’s a stage pedigree that is clear from the opening moments of Big and Small with Blanchett commanding attention as she sits at the front of the stage and launches into a lengthy monologue. She possesses real stage presence and that hard to define ‘star quality’, yet it’s also a subtle performance full of nuance, vocal inflection and gesture. Blanchett is only rarely offstage in this lengthy piece, yet is eminently watchable. As other characters join the action it’s still Blanchett that draws the eye.

All good so far but that’s where the conundrum kicks in, while Blanchett’s performance is indeed impressive we then need to look at Gross und Klein itself.

While theatre should of course challenge its audience and not just serve up answers on a plate, Botho Stauss’ play, in an English translation by Martin Crimp, proves to be almost impenetrable. A series of vignettes that give plenty of opportunity for Blanchett to emote but little or no dramatic narrative or engagement. Are we looking at a dream, a fractured mind, an amalgam of troubled minds, and purgatory – all possible readings but ultimately do we actually care?

Director Benedict Andrews makes no concession to accessibility, staging each scene with a surrealist air that builds on the confusion. Andrews delivers some visually impressive stage imagery to mirror Blanchett’s star performance but is that enough to hold attention in this lengthy and languid production?

Ultimately the answer has to be no. While one can admire the performance the lasting impression is a feeling of being short changed. Challenging theatre still needs to provide some hook to allow its audience in, here that hook seems missing and, in the pursuit to be worthy, the show has veered dangerously into pretentiousness. It is always good when theatre provokes questions but when that question is ‘what on earth was that about’ something has gone tragically wrong.

There’s the rare treat here of seeing Ms Blanchett on the London stage but, as the Sydney Theatre Company’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, it’s a slow plod rather than a 100m sprint and one that many will struggle to make as far as the finishing line.

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