In Austria we have Festival Season when – during Summer – most of the regular theatres are closing down but hordes of tourists are coming to see theatre. This year’s season started last night – and in Vienna with a real gem: Botho Strauß’ “Groß und Klein”. And we were able to bring the Australian production in – with the stunningly brilliant Cate Blanchett (who, I can now safely say, is gravelly underused in her movie-schticks) as Lotte.
And yes – Botho Strauß’ text and its whole concept of being more and more isolated when your partner leaves you, to the point where you are no longer able to communicate – it wouldn’t work without Cate Blanchett any longer. Written in ’78 the play shows the rapid descent into devastating loneliness because the partner left for another, younger, sexier woman. The problem being that almost 50 years later, probably everybody in the audience has already lived through this kind of separation anxiety without losing oneself into nothingness. Having a partner no longer is – or at least no longer has to be – the sole meaning of life.
That said, I loved the play. In ten “scenes” we are witness to a life being lost, a spirit being slowly suffocated by an unresponsive and largely silent group of friends, strangers, family. Lotte is an excentric, interesting, artsy person who loves to draw and is good at it. But after her husband Paul leaves her, she loses touch – loses her ability to connect with people. She rents a room in the same house where Paul is now living with his new lover, and is surprised when first she can’t win him back, and then is forced out by the rest of the tenants she wasn’t able to befriend even though she tried.
She shows up at the doorstep of her “best friend” who turns out to be a friend from grammar school she hasn’t seen in decades. She offers to lend an ear to Meggy’s problems, but ends up being used as a shoulder to cry on and thrown out as soon as Meggy feels better. The rooms that have been closing in on her get smaller all the time. Lotte finds herself in a phone box, decorated with flowers and a chair, calling Paul over and over again, speaking into his answering machine, just in order to talk.
When she finally makes it to her happily married brother she has to realise that the man is hitched to an alcoholic wife and only partner in a dentist’s practice because said wife is the daughter of the owner. Her attempts at helping her brother who has long given up any hope of happiness in this family, fail and she is on the road again. Tries being a girlfriend to an accountant who cannot cope with her excentricities, finally living rough and chatting up a young man at a bus stop with the fabulous story of being one of the 36 righteous people in the world, doing good deeds, so that god will not destroy mankind. The young man, fascinated by her tale as much as by her looks, turns away in disgust when she starts rummaging in a waste bin in search of newspapers, trying to find out if journalist Paul has written anything in them.
And finally we find her in the waiting room of a doctor’s practice, silent, just sitting there as if waiting for something, while the patients are called in to the doctor’s office one after the other. Patients that have already given her a wide berth, unwilling to communicate, unable to communicate with her. When finally everyone is done, the Doctor comes out – and it is yet another ironic twist that he is played by Robert Menzies who also is Paul – asking her if she has been seen. “I am not sick”, Lotte says and it seems as if she wants to be ill, just to connect again. “Then you should leave now” the Doctor says and Lotte nods, gets up and walks away into the dusk.
To see Lotte metamorphose from the excentric, happy go lucky, chatty woman from the beginning, who can’t stop talking, charming people, to the silent, hollow soul at the end is really gripping, thanks largely to Cate Blanchett’s skills and a great translation of Botho Strauß’ German text. Of course the audience came mostly to see the Hollywood great, but that way they were treated to a brilliant evening at the theatre, with a great cast even aside from marvellous Cate B. They seemed to have been sucked into the play because there were 8 or 10 curtain calls and they were well deserved.
A tiny aside: As the actors were brought in from Australia I got to listen to the awesome cadence of Australian English. I think I’m still smiling today… 😉