22 April 2012
London

Cate Blanchett brings star power and impressive physicality to a revival of Boho Strass’ existential drama Gross und Klein. 

London’s summer theatre season is kicking off this month, with the launching of new programmes of works at the major subsidised theatres (the National, the Royal Court), the re-opening of the seasonal theatres (Shakespeare’s Globe, which customarily opens on the weekend of the Bard’s birthday, 23 April), and, this year, the addition of the grandiosely-titled Cultural Olympiad, timed to coincide with the London Olympic Games in the summer. Adding her considerable star power and charisma to the melée is Cate Blanchett, Oscar-winning film actor, Lord of the Rings alumnus, international style icon and now co-director with her husband, Andrew Upton of the Sydney Theatre Company, who leads her company’s production of a rarely-performed German existentialist drama Gross und Klein (Big and Small).

The production poster for Gross und Klein, featuring a close-up of Blanchett’s striking face, has been a staple of the London Underground for the best part of the year. She’s made up and lit to accentuate her Raphael-angel cheekbones, bright eyes and luminous skin, and the strange androgyny of her features. It’s an obvious if savvy move by the Barbican to advertise her celebrity as the main drawcard, since no one except the Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington is old enough to know the play itself. There’s nothing new about the cult of celebrity onstage: although we like to imagine that casting a famous actor in a West End play is a modern affectation of a degenerate public unhealthily obsessed with celebrity over talent, audiences have for centuries flooded to the theatre to see the great actresses of the age: from Nell Gwynne to Sarah Bernhardt, Minnie Fiske, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, Peggy Ashcroft, and more recently the Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

Blanchett is a worthy successor to these greats, not only for her great beauty and her success in film, but because her roots were in theatre: a graduate of NIDA in Sydney, she dazzled on stage in roles from Electra to Miranda in The Tempest and Carol in Mamet’s Oleanna long before Hollywood came calling. In recent years, she’s tackled the leads in Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya, so noone can accuse her of slumming it or resting on her laurels. If there’s going to be celebrity worship of anyone, it might as well be for an actor of her calibre and gorgeousness. Kudos, too, to the Sydney Theatre Company who’ve demonstrated huge confidence by choosing to present a little-performed European work to a European audience, rather than playing it safe by churning out yet another version of Chekhov or Ibsen, or by playing the obvious “patriot” card and presenting an Australian work.

Which makes it rather a pity that Gross und Klein was, despite Blanchett’s extraordinarily loose-limbed and clowning comic efforts, a steaming pile of pretentious outdated old codswallop. It belongs to one of the grimmest and least fun parts of modern literature: the crudely-hewn allegory about a crazy but loveable idiot savant, whose social isolation serves to highlight the cruelty of modern life, and whose suffering acts as a metaphor for dehumanisation and alienation in the big city.

Blanchett plays Lotte, a woman who is, behaviourly and sometimes physically, too big or too small for her environment. She talks too much, thinks too much and emotes too much, and spends the play trying and failing to establish genuine human connection with other people. For the most part, she’s ignored and invisible; occasionally someone will tell her, sharply, that she needs to be more self-sufficient and not so needy; and she’s also the victim of violent abuse by her estranged husband, random strangers, and an unseen but sadistic childhood friend who Lotte speaks to via a door intercom. With a persistence that’s more desperate and compulsive than determined, Lotte tries everything in the book to win peoples’ attention and sympathy: door knocking, secretarial work, disco dancing, stalking men at bus stops, and generally inserting herself into places where she’s not welcome or wanted. Sounds depressing? It is, mostly, which may explain why 1970s German existentialist drama doesn’t get performed with the same frequency as Noel Coward or The Sound of Music. Go figure.

Blanchett’s performance is, depending on your goodwill towards her as an actress, a masterclass in physical acting, or an overly schematic collection of physical tricks and mannerisms plundered from the Jacques le Coq school of “Find your inner animal” stagecraft. She’s undeniably a charismatic stage presence, and her focus and relentless energy keeps the play afloat where a lesser actor would’ve faltered. She’s nothing if not resourceful, using almost everything in her magic box of tricks to keep Lotte alive and interesting and not just a tired central metaphor in a joyless, overly didactic piece of Communist-bloc sludge.

The play with Lotte giving a riveting 20 minute monologue about a dull-sounding holiday in Agadir. She bellows magnificently, and twists her lithe body into an endless variety of distortions for dramatic effect. She’s also a dab hand at physical comedy, surviving being attacked by a tent and having a wrestling match with her lover while she’s wearing a motorcycle helmet. It’s in these lighter moments where the play is strongest, recalling the fall-about slapstick comedy of some productions of Godot’s Waiting for Beckett, but without that play’s emotional coherence. Blanchett’s greatest moments are when she’s chattering to herself on her own, and holding moments of poignant silence. In the final scene, she’s almost completely wordless, and lit gloriously in a circle of golden light, like the 1930s movie starlet she truly is. It’s a mesmerising moment.

Alas, for every one of those moments, there were three more that felt schematic and Actressy. Blanchett was clearly having the time of her life, and manages to cavort, roll, growl, cry, masturbate and fall out of doors without too much vanity – she barely stays still long enough to be too self-regarding. But overall the performance (not helped by the grim, brutalist writing and Martin Crimp’s sledgehammer translation) fails to connect us consistently to Lotte’s fear and longing. We’re too busy admiring the virtuousity of a great actress jumping through hoops to care that much about the character. By the final, excruciating scenes, I wondered whether a grand piano would fall from the rafters on top of her, Muppet Show style, and end our misery.

But clearly I’m in a minority. The English broadsheet critics (all of them, predictably middle-aged men with an eye for a pretty actress) have fallen all over themselves with praise, throwing superlatives at Blanchett’s performance. Michael Billington praises a “one of the most dazzlingly uninhibited performances I’ve ever seen”. The Observer‘s equally enraptured Euan Ferguson enthuses that she’s “Whimperingly, blisteringly terrific… a revelation”, and that “you actually forgive much of the play and simply marvel at being in the presence of a bona fide stage star.”The audience gave four standing ovations, Ferguson writes, not because they’re in love with 70s German surrealist drama, but because they are “applauding the realisation that sometimes, just sometimes, a person truly deserves to be a star.” The Telegraph‘s Charles Spencer gives a more measured response: clearly not a fan of the play, he describes seeing an earlier version starring Glenda Jackson as “one of the most punishing pieces of theatre I have ever endured”, but concludes that Our Cate “triumphantly transcends the limitations of the script” in a performance that is variously “sensational”, “spellbinding”, “dazzling” and “radiant”.

At the Sunday matinee I attended, the audience rose in a single movement to give Blanchett a standing ovation, bellowing “More!”, as if they were applauding a circus performance. I wondered for a second whether Blanchett might oblige and do a forward roll or one of her spot-on celebrity impressions. (She did a great Duke of Edinburgh on The Graham Norton Show last week). It’s hard not to admire an actor who goes the extra mile, and who is so rabidly eager to entertain. But even Our Cate can’t save a play that’s crude, hectoring, grandiose, and unmemorable. Half an hour after we left the theatre, I’d forgotten most of Gross und Klein, and was busily wondering what tonight’s episode of Homeland or the Season 5 finale of True Blood would be like.

Despite my disappointment, I hope that Blanchett returns to London again – hopefully with a nice bit of Ibsen or Chekhov. No tricks, japes, cartwheels, crotch-scratching or silly dancing required, thanks, love. Just be your glorious big-cheekboned self, and find a script that’s worthy of your considerable talents.

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