Big and Small, Barbican Theatre, London

Director Benedict Andrews (who replaced Luc Bondy at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s international touring production shortly before it went into rehearsal last year) and translator Martin Crimp have resisted making Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein unspecific. Personal and place names remain unrepentantly German, right down to protagonist Lotte’s old address on the Strasse des 13. Januar in Saarbrücken. Strauss’s observations may have universal application, but they are about Germany.

Not, however, about contemporary Germany. The play was written in 1978 and previously (as Great And Small) enjoyed a West End run in 1983 starring Glenda Jackson; not even the current central casting of Cate Blanchett could achieve as much for it today – two and a half weeks at the Barbican, that’s your lot. Crimp’s text now mentions nanotechnology and the currency is the euro, but still includes references to “the war generation” which now make no sense among the population of the play. And as the onstage world (notwithstanding the absurdities included by Strauss) makes less sense, then so does Lotte’s journey within it and her inability to find any kind of place for herself there.

This is not the kind of thing that would worry Lotte, at least until the wind begins to go out of her psychological sails in the final couple of scenes. She is almost incurably optimistic, whether living in her ex’s apartment house, tracking down an old classmate and conversing with her via entryphone, or making ridiculous secretarial efforts for a new squeeze who is a minor civic bureaucrat. Through it all, though, she remains chained to her past with that former lover . . . so perhaps the dislocated Germany of this version is apt for her after all.

Blanchett is riveting throughout: animated and vibrant, her Lotte shows us exactly what she is thinking and feeling at every instant, and does so with as much energy as the other 13 players put together. But Strauss’s dramatic world – atomised and anomic, as so often in his work, and realised in a beautifully minimal set design by Johannes Schütz – gets the better of her in the end. The degree to which we relate to that world is moot; what is beyond dispute is the quality of Blanchett’s performance.

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