Who would have thought that London theatre audiences had such a craving for 1970s semi-surreal German drama. Or is the fact that tickets are so hard to get for this Sydney Theatre Company revival of Botho Strauss' compellingly odd play more due to the fact that the heroine Lotte is here played by Hollywood A-list film star Cate Blanchett? Probably. Okay, definitely.
But as well as being treated to one of the most mesmerising performances of the year, lucky punters will have been exposed to an intriguing dreamlike drama that keeps blurred the line between its heroine's imagination and her experience.
The poor woman has been left by her self-obsessed newspaper columnist husband Paul. Through a series of scenes that could each stand alone as a playlet, Strauss paints a portrait of a woman attempting to pick up the pieces of her life. The play is constructed out of an odyssey of painful experiences that culminate in a portrait of a woman who is forced to draw strength from herself - as opposed from those around her. But even though Martin Crimp's new updated translation, and Benedict Andrews' visually arresting production, in most respects delivers a thoroughly modern play, the lesson seems rather outdated here, and Lotte remains determinedly of the period she was written for – a woman who is over-reliant on the kindness of strangers.
Reaching out to an old school friend turns out to be anything but a comfort. Working as a secretary to a man who might replace Paul is equally unrewarding. Rather like Shirley MacLaine's lovelorn Sweet Charity, Blanchett's Lotte is a woman whose trust and sincerity puts her at a disadvantage to those who take advantage.
As Lotte – wearing a little too much make-up than is good for her, and bearing too much emotion on her sleeve, too - Blanchett is something close to brilliant at transmitting the occasionally coarse awkwardness of a woman whose confidence has been knocked for six. We see her buffeted and bruised by experience, even by the rather hateful dysfunctional family that is no less strange than the strangers she meets.
Yet as with Charity, Lotte is a woman of her time and in Crimp's updated version represents an awfully old-fashioned idea of how a woman copes with rejection. Rather like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, period is crucial to the point of the play. So paradoxically, a period production of Strauss' play would have spoken more convincingly to modern audiences.
The result is an evening rich in performance and, thanks to designer Johannes Schultz, one that is visually innovative, too. Much of the action is set on a dark stage of seemingly infinite depth. But as so often happens with barnstorming performances delivered by hugely talented actors, the ultimate impression is of a production whose chief purpose is to display the talents of its star. Which, admittedly, in the case of Blanchett is reason enough to join the hordes.