Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gross und Klein

Sydney Theatre Company presents GROSS UND KLEIN by Botho Strauss at the Sydney Theatre (BIG AND SMALL, English Text by Martin Crimp).

GROSS UND KLEIN (Big and Small) by Botho Strauss premièred at the Schaubhne am, Halleschen Ufer, Berlin in December, 1978, directed by Peter Stein. In 1988 the Sydney Theatre Company presented BIG AND LITTLE under the guest direction of German, Harald Clemen, with Robyn Nevin in the lead role of Lotte (the play has also been produced at the National Institute of Dramatic Art). GROSS UND KLEIN directed by Benedict Andrews (replacing Luc Bondy) and starring Cate Blanchett has been, for this production, for the Sydney Theatre Company, translated by Martin Crimp.

Botho Strauss was one of the theatre artists that Peter Stein gathered around himself at the Schaubuhne in what was then West Berlin, during that period when he was "establishing the dominance of avant-garde, director-led theatre for which Germany" has become famous (today the Schbaubuhne is dominated by the work of Thomas Ostermeier, a favourite of Australian Art Festivals -  Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone and several other young Australian artists are acolytes of this director and company). In 'the mid-1960's "...German playwrights were concerned with the failings of society and a realistic form of drama rooted in everyday life began to emerge ... Leading this tradition was Marxist writer Franz-Xaver Kroetz  (STALLERHOF; DAS NEST). ... Others who were highly critical of contemporary life yet apolitical in their outlook included Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (HELDENPLATZ) and Botho Strauss."

Botho Stauss "inspired by philosopher Theodor Adorno, and collaborating with prominent theatrical figures including Bernhard and Kroetz...  sought to develop his playwriting and its engagement within the complexities of daily life. He became interested in notions of materialism and alienation, and in the representation of characters struggling with their subconsciousness. GROSS UND KLEIN was one of Strauss' early successes, and follows the character Lotte as she journeys from location to location, through ten scenes, seeking to understand modern life and her place within it."

Lotte (Cate Blanchett) is found, abandoned, alone, in a hotel room in Morocco, who in the infernal heat cannot find the sleep of the just and so listens eagerly to the conversation of two men, two other guests, on the verandah outside her room, her window. Her husband, Paul, has disappeared and is in her home city, Saarbrucken - and she sees "a life of separation" spooling out in front of her.

She has: "Eleven more days in Agadir.
               Time passes.
               All I've done so far is gain weight.
               Everything is very simple : nothing's right.
               Time passes, but not the way it should."

She feels: "Greed, envy, disinterest,
                 avarice,  and zeal-
                 these are the passions
                 that have afflicted our Siesta Tour the worst.
                 And drinking.
                 ...Eleven more days in Agadir.

She struggles with the beautiful voices of the men.
she overhears and is moved by the voice :
                      " Yes ! ... Yes!"

She becomes: "A fraid.
                       A fraid fraid fraid".
She has vision:                         
                      "Behold , man will
                       depart from this earth
                       and be done in all his works.
                       After him the earth will redden with
                       shame and fruitfulness.
                       The gardens and the fields will
                       enter into the empty cities;
                       the antelopes will browse in the rooms
                       and the wind will gently leaf through open books.
                       The earth will be unmanned and will bloom.
                       Freed from all its prophets, fettered hope
                       will be redeemed and will grow rich in the silence.
                       Freightless the sea lulls itself,
                       the land wanders untrodden and the air plays in tall flowers.
                       And it will be so for one thousand two hundred and sixty days ...
                       what does that mean? How did I arrive at
                       one thousand two hundred and sixty days?
                       That adds up to about four years.
                       Four years, not quite. Four years of what?"

She ponders:    "Nice voices.
                        Can you hear?
                        Better now than then."

She smiles:       "Crazy."

Deserted, her world balance askew, crazy, from emotional loss and the dreary heat, Lotte returns home and  begins an odyssey across the landscape of her Germany, in the urgency of her knowledge of the future coming. She is not going to wait, she will not be waiting, like Vladimir and Estragon, for Godot, but will be found searching, more and more desperately searching, as the play moves through a further nine scenes, for Godot.

GROSS UND KLEIN: Lotte searching for Godot !!??

In 1978 this was a Germany still divided, as Mr Andrews in the program notes says - "in a country which no longer exists ...(but) now, the Germany Lotte wanders through might be thought of as a fairytale of the West. …a place haunted by social imbalance, mass layoffs, deregulated markets and a worldwide ecological crisis. The inhabitants of this country (this world) suffer from a kind of mental exhaustion ... The possibility of the extinction of the species hovers over the entire play." And as the conference of the European Union (the Euro Zone) countries convenes over concerns of the present monetary collapse; the Arab Spring - Libya, Syria, Iran, Israel; the Russian election protests over the United Russia party and Putin; the selling of uranium by Australia to India, and the tit for tat demands of Pakistan, the uncertainties of Coal Seam Gas mining on our environment, makes this play dramatically urgent and heartbreakingly distressing. Botho Strauss writing in a country that within his life experience stands between the absolute of the Holocaust and the absolute of the Bomb (consequently, the Nuclear Cold War Race) is still a frightening prophet for our more jaded and fragile times - 2011. GROSS UND KLEIN is still relevant, frighteningly so.

Frightening, for after this journey, and witnessing a world where the people: family, friends and strangers, are venal, sterile and empty, blind, hollow and selfish, Lotte finishes the play in the room of an internist, in the company of patients. Gradually the patients are called, one by one, into the surgery, they return and leave, and so the room clears, and Lotte sits alone in that waiting room.

The Doctor enters and sees her -

Doctor: Haven't you been called?

Lotte:   No.
            I'm just sitting here.

Doctor: Did you have an appointment for this morning?

Lotte:   No. I'm just sitting here.
            There's nothing wrong with me.

Doctor: Please leave.

Lotte:   Yes.

And so Lotte leaves and walks off into an infinite darkness. An infinite darkness. She has not found her Godot.

We applaud, shuffle from our seats and walk out into the darkness of a strangely cold summer night. Strange and cold. Odd, strange and cold. Crazy weather. Crazy! And as I climb up the concrete stairs beside the theatre, up the facaded cliff face, to the bus terminus at the base of historic Observatory Hill, I wonder is that Lotte I observe ahead of me? Hey! Hey! Lotte wandering off ahead of me into the strange, cold darkness of this late November night somewhere before midnight ? As I stand, holding the play in my hands, in the enveloping darkness, both real and metaphoric, the world of Botho Strauss' prophetising, declares, it may be closer to midnight than I know. "Afraid." The 339 to Clovelly whisks me through the city sites, sights, sights of varying disrepair and despair,in fluorescent light, to a view of the lulled Pacific Ocean - a sighing collective unconsciousness (???).

Cate Blanchett as Lotte gives a tour de force performance. For the qualities that Ms Blanchett gave us, in the recent past, in tantalisingly disciplined creations as HEDDA GABLER, Richard II in THE WAR OF THE ROSES, Blanche Dubois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Yeliena in last year's UNCLE VANYA, are unleashed here, in a torrent of continuous and grand gesture, rarely leaving the stage, riding delectably, the boundaries of her creative intelligence, as applied to the opportunities of this enormous role, and demonstrating the glorious technical range of her actor's instrument. The vocal work is an inspiration for all other artists (see my blog on JULIUS CAESAR) and the physical dexterity is awesome in its seeming ease and daring. Drama, pathos, comedy all covered and all managed with the greatest aplomb. Artistry and an artist of great standing.

The set design by guest, Johannes Schutz, of movable pieces of location realities in exquisite selective visual suggestions, surrounded by an enormous blacked walled box, expertly and brilliantly lit by Nick Schliepper, and decorated with carefully and ingeniously dressed actors, both in style and colour pallet, by Alice Babidge, encased in a throbbing and extravagant sound design by Max Lyandvert creates a  showcase for this work that is apt and attractive.

The supporting company are, despite their relative under use (dramatically, some are seen shifting furniture and props more often than actually acting) are committed and true. Lynette Curran, Anita Hegh manage to stand out in this company, in the work they have to give.

And, yet.

Yet? My summary experience of the play as performance,on the night, is uncomfortably underwhelming. In retrospect, too. Whilst watching, I  was entranced, enraptured by the magic of the artist, Cate Blanchett. This is now over a week ago, I've had to sort out, to find, a clearer circumspection, there is an element of contiguity, a sense, a state, that the work  of Botho Strauss is only in close proximity, it is not actually touching us, coalescing. It is near but not there. It is not one. I needed to re-read the play to grasp the reasoning for its place in the Sydney theatre cultural landscape. There is this remarkable performance by Ms Blanchett , and, then, there is this potentially devastating play, enshrouded in this production by Mr Andrews. Indeed, some of my friends loved her, but couldn't understand why the play was been done at all. It didn't connect or mean a thing to them. And, as I have intimated above, it should. It really should.

Whoever is in control must carry the responsibility, I guess. Benedict Andrews is the director, and, I suggest must bear the responsibility of this miss.

The text by Martin Crimp, used (commissioned?) by the Sydney Theatre Company, is not available and so the quotations above are from an earlier translation by Anne Cattaneo for Farrar/Straus/Giroux (New York), 1979. The production on the stage, using the Crimp, is really more an adaptation than a translation when compared, and, I felt to the detriment of the playwright's intentions.

One of the features of the Cattaneo version is that Lotte's journey  reveals the 'desolate' world around her in much detail, not just the observation of Lotte's experience. Mr Crimp and Andrews have filleted the play down to a focus on Lotte. Whole sequences in the 1979 version are absent from this production (For instance, the last episode (16) in the Catteano, of the remarkable third sequence of TEN ROOMS, involving a slide night in the room of the Old Man and Woman (Martin Vaughan and Lynette Curran), witnessed by some of the house with a conspicuous empty chair, that one assumes is for Lotte, and, significantly, she does not appear, to use it, has been removed). Other characters have had their presence, 'voices', severely edited so that they barely exist as living entities of worthy observation, simply, set dressing background e.g. the Guitar Player (Josh McConville) and the Research Assistants; The Turk (Yalin Ozucelik).

This editing shifts the focus from the observed society around Lotte, the world that is been painfully and minutely examined by Botho Strauss. In the Crimp version Lotte alone is of significance to Strauss. The rest of the world of Strauss,  has been reduced to representations of mere serviceable tokens, almost visual caricatures of the world, instead of concrete examples of the reality of the environment that Lotte lives in. Instead of a world of some detail of Lotté's journey, we simply have a focus on the gradual disintegration of one person. The power of Botho Strauss' observations and vision of a world where 'corruption'of all kinds is so pervasive,and textually presented, have been undercut. So, what we do  have? A virtuosic actress revealing magnificently " an angel, a fool, a clown, (a) hopeless , hapless... soul in isolation ..." And that is only part of the Strauss vision in the Ms Cattaneo translation. Is this why I feel, at the end of this production, bewildered, unmoved by the play? No matter the performance of Ms Blanchett?

I also began to detect an unsure hand from Mr Andrews as to what kind of text, play, he was working with here, and, even, that he had no sure insights or technique to help his actors solve the problems of the scenes that he and Mr Crimp have devised from the original, to communicate the Stauss, or, even Crimp, Andrews intent, to the audience in any consistency.

In a program note, placed beside an enigmatic photograph of Benedict Andrews, looking like some figure in a Renaissance religious painting - (a prophet of his time?) - is a quotation, an excerpt from Hans-Thies Lehmann's POSTDRAMATIC THEATRE, translated by Karen Jurs-Munby (Routledge, London and New York 2006), we may gather some of the aesthetic of the director and an entrance to his vision, (I presume):
…Painters speak of states, the states of images in the process of creation ...Effectively, the category appropriate to the new theatre is not action but states. Theatre here deliberately negates, or at least relegates to the background, the possibility of developing a narrative - a possibility that is after all peculiar to it as a time based art. The state is an aesthetic configuration of the theatre, showing a formation rather than a story, even though living actors play in it. It is no coincidence that many practitioners of postdramatic theatre started out in the visual arts. Postdramatic theatre is a theatre of states and of scenically dynamic formations.
On reflection, back to Mr Andrews production of THE WAR OF THE ROSES, which was a radical evisceration of Shakespeare's texts by Mr Andrews and Tom Wright, it was the visual images that were the dynamic thrust of the experience and indeed, for me, is the principal memory I have of the production: The visual artistry at the beginning of the STC epic, in a rain of gold leaf, and finishing many, many hours later, through many, many other "scenic dynamic formations",  in a rain of ash. It was "a production of states and of scenically dynamic formations." That Mr Andrews had manipulated the text for his postdramatic exploration was a convenient asset for his intentions. The purpose of this post dramatic gesturing is "striving to produce an effect amongst the spectators rather than to remain true to the text". This, with this work, Mr Andrews achieved controversially among the patrons of the Sydney theatre audience. Heiner Muller and Heiner Goebbels are champions of this technique of exploration. That they write their own material to do this, is a considerable part of their achievement.

In this production of GROSS UND KLEIN, however, the textual manipulation has not been radical at all and in the schematic comparisons with THE WAR OF THE ROSES is rather slight. The form structure and narrative of this altered version from the original by Mr Crimp, has not been easily adulterated to achieve the art-school visual summaries of the episodes of this play, to negate, or even relegate to the background, the narrative. The production, then, falls between two stools of intent - the writer's (Botho Strauss) original, and the director's, (Benedict Andrews) inclinations as an artist. This play by Botho Strauss seems to me an inheritance of the work of Bertold Brecht rather than anything of say, a postdramatic artist like Muller. I see, Brecht's narrative techniques influence and shadowing the shape and intentions of GROSS UND KLEIN. Lotte on her terrifying journey of quest and scene meetings as a parallel to that of Grusha and her flight across another world in cultural turmoil in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE (1943-45/1948). And although the scenic decisions made by Mr Andrews and Mr Schutz are attractive they do not hold the same dynamic force of the ROSES and is dominated, rather, by the narrative and linear expression of the text. The visuals are in service much more to the dramatic text rather than any postdramatic assertion in the program.

Mr Andrews' handling of some of the elements of the textural narrative are often opaque and fail to communicate the point of the episodes. Scene 6, "Family in a Garden", is an instance in point. The actors seem to be texturally, stylistically at odds with each other, the physical staging clumsy and incoherent, and the time spent with it, became for me, more concerned with the image of the furniture anchored in concrete 'feet'. The textural density of the scene as it still exists in this version of the play remains a puzzlement in the hands of Mr Andrews.

Is there a tentativeness in Mr Andrews handling of Ms Blanchett? For although she claims that Mr Andrews made big and new demands on her in rehearsal, such is the choice of some of the work on the stage, one wonders did he ever suggest that less may be more? Was he in awe? For although it is not the job of a director to tell an actor what to do - a cliché, indeed - it is the job of the director to do more than to offer a proposition of exploration. It is his job to encourage the actor to "connect the dots", but also to be the outside eye to advise the actor when there is a superfluity of "dots". The latter scene choices of Lotte as "a comedienne dancing on the edge of an abyss" seemed in the physical demonstrations by Ms Blanchett, although virtuosic and astounding, to overstate the Strauss intentions. In an interview with Elissa Blake in The Sydney Morning Herald (November 12-13, 2011), Cate Blanchett and Benedict Andrews both laugh at the 'smelly' idea that playing Lotte could be perceived as a "vanity project". Some might proffer that this could indeed be a possibility here, given the permissive choices encouraged by Mr Andrews, and in the light of the editing of the original text at the expense of the Strauss world-picture (and the other actors textual opportunities).

An amazing performance from Cate Blanchett of a very interesting play in a flawed production by Benedict Andrews. One is glad to have seen Ms Blanchett once again exploring for the Sydney audience her great gifts but bewildered as to why this play is the vehicle of this recent, annual event (alas, not next year).

GROSS UND KLEIN is co-commissioned by Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Barbican London and London 2012 Festival using funds from the National Lottery, Theatre de la Ville and Wiener Festwochen.

I am curious as to the choice of play for the London 2012 Festival, part of the London Cultural Olympiad program. It is featured in the general advertising of the Festival as a chance to see Cate Blanchett on the London stage for the first time in 13 years. In a German play, with a German Designer, and, originally a German Director. Could the Sydney Theatre Company not have had the foresight to commission an Australian playwright and full Australian artistic company to represent the Sydney Theatre Company, to be part of the Cultural Olympiad?

I would have thought a revival of Nigel Jameison's STC production of GALLIPOLI would have been a more appropriate choice (perhaps they are keeping that in reserve for the 2015, the Centenary observance of that war?). I simply seek information as to the where and why for, of this decision. I guess funding of such a journey might be part of the answer. If so, let us hope the Australian Government takes more interest in the Arts as an ambassadorial tool if that is the case. Yes?

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