(Benedict Andrews; and with cast members Cate Blanchett and
Robert Menzies, and costume designer Alice Babidge; photo: Grant
Benedict Andrews was in Iceland taking a few months out from his
hectic international directing career when Sydney Theatre Company
It was late August, about four weeks until the start of rehearsals
for Gross und Klein (Big and
Small) by German playwright Botho Strauss, and
legendary Swiss director Luc Bondy had pulled out due to back
problems. Would he take over?
"It took me a few days to make the decision," says Andrews at the
end of the first week of rehearsals. "There were various things to
find out and work out and discussions to be had with my partner
(Magga, an Icelandic choreographer). She's coming out in a couple
of weeks. I wouldn't have been able to say 'yes' if she couldn't
have come as well."
The 39-year-old, Adelaide-born director sprung immediately to mind
as the ideal replacement to helm the production, which tours next
year to Britain, Austria, Germany and France.
One of Australia's most influential, groundbreaking stage
directors, Benno - as he is affectionately known - has an
international reputation for his bold, highly intelligent,
uncompromising interpretations of the classics as well as his
interest in radical new writing by the likes of German playwright
Marius von Mayenburg and Britain's Martin Crimp and Caryl
Churchill. He has had a long association with STC where he has
directed many award-winning productions including Patrick White's
The Season at
Sarsaparilla staged in a revolving brick house
in 2007, the epic, eight-hour The War of the
Roses and Crimp's
both in 2009.
For Gross und Klein, STC is
using a specially commissioned adaptation by Crimp - a writer
Andrews admires and knows personally. What's more, he has been a
regular guest with the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin and
is knowledgeable about contemporary German playwriting.
It was lucky that Andrews was free.
"I'd given myself an unusual and exceptional break," he says. "I
don't usually do that but I had deliberately given myself time
between The Seagull [which
opened at Belvoir in June] and The
Marriage of Figaro [which he directs for Opera
Australia next February] to write and prepare as I have an intense
rhythm after this."
He sure does: over the next 18 months he directs the Figaro, Every Breath at Belvoir
in March - which he also wrote, marking his debut as a playwright -
a contemporary German opera called Caligula for English
National Opera, another London project yet to be announced, and
Macbeth for the
National Theatre of Iceland.
Two days after saying "yes", Andrews was on a flight to Washington,
where STC's Uncle Vanya was
playing, to meet with Cate Blanchett, who stars in Gross und
Klein, and Crimp.
"Benno's involvement in this project in many ways seems like fate,"
says Blanchett. "Martin's adaptation, Johannes' design and indeed
much of the casting could all have sprung from his imaginings. We
are extremely fortunate to have him leading this production."
After a few days back in Reykjavik, he went to Berlin to meet with
the production's German set designer Johannes Schütz, then dropped
in on London to discuss various other projects, before flying to
"Since being invited to do it, it's felt a little bit like going
through the rabbit hole myself into another world," says the
jetlagged Andrews with a laugh.
Being whisked down a rabbit hole and into a wonderland-like world
is an analogy often used to describe the experience of Gross und
Klein, which premiered in West Berlin in 1978
directed by Peter Stein.
The surreal play takes audiences on a dreamlike journey as we
follow the lonely, ever-optimistic Lotte (Blanchett) through a
series of strange encounters in which she tries unsuccessfully to
connect with people.
"For me, it's an astonishing play," says Andrews, who first read it
while studying drama at Flinders University. "I found it very
exciting while I was at university and the play was very
influential on my thinking then."
However, he admits he hasn't thought about Strauss a great deal
since. "He's from the originating Schaubühne generation with Peter
Stein and part of that movement. I've worked with a different
generation of Schaubühne that's called 'the blood and sperm'
generation - writers like Marius [von Mayenburg] and directors like
"They define themselves as having a different agenda from the
generation before them. I guess I've been thinking about German
theatre more from that era so it's interesting to go back to
Andrews considers Gross und Klein
Strauss' "great work. Partly because it was created in a very
specific culture in this ideological war zone of what was Western
Germany - a society under pressure, a fault line, an economic and
cultural experiment - and maybe this play was what the Germans call
'theatre of a new sensibility'.
"It was very, very new this rootless figure [Lotte] in a world
where values have been lost and a new modernity has come in quite
fast. She's a very interesting figure because she's like an alien
in her own land. In that way she's a relation of Agnes in
Strindberg's A Dream Play or Alice
[in Wonderland] or Dorothy [in The Wizard
of Oz] - a child-woman wandering through a land
where she is an alien. Therefore, she shows the land in a new
Andrews inherited the design team of Alice Babidge (costumes), with
whom he has collaborated many times, and Schütz (set) with whom he
hasn't worked before - though he has known of his work for some
time and considers him "an astounding theatre designer".
A director with a strong visual imagination, Andrews says he shares
Schütz's "minimalist and essentialist notion of the stage. He's
come up with very beautiful, skeletal readings of each scene and
it's a thrill to work with him".
Andrews is also delighted with the cast, which includes Robert
Menzies, Anita Hegh and Belinda McClory, with whom he has worked
"Also, it's an extraordinary role for Cate," he says, "and it's
wonderful to work with her again after The War of
the Roses where she was so astonishing,
particularly as Richard II. But that was a massive production where
I might meet her four times a week in the scheme of things. In
this, she never really leaves the stage and to be able to have that
much more intense dialogue with her is really interesting."
Andrews' relationship with STC goes back to 1999, towards the end
of Wayne Harrison's tenure as artistic director, when he
workshopped Marivaux's La Dispute, Crimp's
Attempts on Her Life
and Ur/faust for The
Directory, which David Berthold ran as part of the artform
development arm New Stages.
In 2000, newly appointed artistic director Robyn Nevin invited
Andrews and Wesley Enoch to take over the programming for Wharf 2,
which they called Blueprints.
Resident director with the company from 2000 to 2003, Andrews'
first production was La
Dispute, which played in Wharf 2 in 2000 as part of the
"I was very involved in these different levels of the company while
I was here, so I consider those extraordinary years for me," he
says. "It was an extraordinary opportunity that Robyn gave me. I
was producing a lot and maybe making some mistakes and learning a
lot of things and she kept backing me when some audiences [were
saying] "we don't want this".
"Actually I think there's been a massive cultural shift since that
time. It was only 10 years ago, but when I did Three
Sisters in 2001 it provoked a real reaction. Some
people loved it but many people hated it. Robyn's support of me and
directors like Barrie [Kosky] I think prepared a new ground for
both the work I do now and for this next generation of younger
directors - what Simon [Stone] is doing at Belvoir and so on. There
really has been a new audience developed. I think people's
expectations have changed and I feel very proud to have been part
of that in some way - and a lot of that was to do with this
hot-house time for me here at STC."
Gross und Klein (Big and
Small), Sydney Theatre, 19 November - 23