Provincial Life and its Discontents

Revivals from three countries explore the anxieties of superfluous men and women

Anne McElvoy

Nature bestowed Cate Blanchett with lynx eyes, a generous mouth, graceful agility and a sexy growl of a voice. None of this seems to have held her back.

After an Oscar-winning Hollywood run, she is now co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, who bring Gross und Klein (“Large and Small”), Botho Strauss’s dystopian take on the anomie of West Germany, to the Barbican main stage after rave Antipodean reviews.

The play is both absurdist (Blanchett’s character is a needy modern Alice in Wonderland, wandering through a series of unfinished encounters) but reflects the underlying neuroses of German society of the period Strauss is writing about: after the post-war economic miracle and long before unification. Free-floating anxiety dominates: a family chain their garden furniture and barbecue to concrete blocks to ward off thieves, the intercom becomes a Cerberus at every door and everywhere there lurks the sense of something — perhaps divided Germany itself — unfinished and unhappy.

The director, Benedict Andrews, has removed a lot of contemporary references. That means we do not entirely get a feel of Saarbrücken and the snobberies of an unfashionable part of the country, inhabited by people who wish they were somewhere else, nor of the micro-snobberies involved.

Still, Blanchett’s Lotte is aimless, irksome and engaging, lurching her way through what Heinrich Kleist called the “fragile furnishings of the world”. It is a superbly controlled performance, veering between hysteria and observation of the foibles of, among others, a self-righteous husband, who has been predicting nuclear war for 20 years, “and all we got was peace, peace, peace”, complains a puzzled Blanchett. Politically, Strauss ranks as culturally conservative for his views on the dumbing down of German culture and attacks on liberalism’s failures against multiculturalism. Gross und Klein isn’t so much about ideology as about modernity and its dissatisfactions. It’s played with a conviction that sweeps us along, largely because the starry Ms Blanchett never lets up in a gruelling role — one star who truly shines.

 A decade before Strauss wrote his best-known work, Alan Plater, the North-East’s unofficial laureate, penned Close the Coalhouse Door. The play (with music by the peerless political chansonnier Alex Glasgow) was written in 1968 and updated in the mid-1970s, when the worst thing a disaffected socialist had to complain about was centrist governments: “Nowadays they’ve got a craze/To follow clever Keynesian ways.” 

Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot and The Pitman Painters, has given a creakily structured play a makeover, with Samuel West directing. Mr West is more your classic Islingtonian than a gritty Northerner acquainted with the coalfields. To his credit, he gets this quibble out of the way at the start, with a parody of Brechtian didactic theatre (enhanced because a cast accident meant that Mr West, who starred in Enron, had to kick off the run at the Northern Stage in Newcastle, understudying the role of the “expert”, in his Open University roll-neck). 

A pithy account of British industrial decline follows but fear not, it’s not all hard labour (or Old Labour). Glasgow’s songs are rendered with real charm and Hall relishes a one-liner. A character explains that the mines were replaced by “a crisp factory, a car factory — and a perfume factory. That would be the olefactory.” But it’s a thin seam indeed, trying to make a work of this era reflect political realities today. Plater once ruminated on the “strange lost land” of obsolescent dramas and this one works better dealing with the grievous unfairness of the mining past than as a parable for present political action. 

A heavy hand is applied to the beefed-up part of the feminist girlfriend (Louisa Farrant), who brings an alien “ism” into the socialist household and ignites fraternal strife by flirting with her boyfriend’s embittered proletarian brother John (Nicholas Woodley). Hall’s strength is depicting tormented working-class masculinity, so both Farrant  and Jane Holdman as Mary, the household matriarch, sound a bit like ciphers. 

We’re dispatched with a boilerplate sermon about the evils of capitalist greed, plus the vague hope of the triumph of an unspecified kindly socialism. That and Newcastle United winning ten European championships: both equally likely.

The lives of superfluous men and women in the provinces are also at the heart of Uncle Vanya, which seems ubiquitous at the moment, from the National’s recent version to Roger Allam’s garlanded Chichester production. It is now a surprise hit at the Print Room en plein Notting Hill. It’s a studio theatre with a decent-size floor (stage would be overstating things) — and a frustratingly small amount of seating.  

That gives Lucy Bailey’s production a village-hall feel.But there is very  good stuff indeed in little bundles here. Mike Poulton has produced a polished reworking, with only a few jarring cadences. The feuds and listless passions feel urgently fresh in the hands of a terrific cast. The ghastly valetudinarian professor (David Yelland) is pitched somewhere between the loftiness of Lord Owen and a country house historian who treats every conversation as if it were held from a lectern. Seedy, self-hating Astrov (William Houston) is a big, sexy beast of a man and Uncle Vanya (Iain Glen) a trembling wreck of sweating inadequacy.

 I’ve had many favourite Uncle Vanyas in my time, including the quirky Louis Malle film version with a young Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn. But if one test of a production is how desperately empathetic Sonya’s (Charlotte Emmerson) “We shall rest” speech makes you feel, this one scores highly. It might even move the steely denizens of Notting Hill to tears, which is saying something.

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