Karen Blixen is quite well known, mainly because of Meryl Streep’s impressive portrayal of the Danish author in Sydney Pollack’s Oscar winning film “Out of Africa”. Robert Redford played Denys, the English big game hunter whom Blixen fell in love with. Karen Blixen, writing under the pen name of Isak Dinesen, was considered several times for the Nobel Prize in literature but sadly never won.
Created by Riotous Company, an international collective of artists known for blending physical, aerial, and traditional theatre with storytelling, live music, poetry, dance and creative imagery in their performances, the stage production features a cast of four with occasional appearances by composer-musician Nikola Kodjabashia. Luis F Carvalho‘s set entails an old chest centre stage and a backdrop of gauze curtains that can track up and down stage.
Out of Blixen tells four of Karen Blixen’s short stories, framed with autobiographical details by the author herself, played by Kathryn Hunter who also directs the production. Blixen starts the show by breathing life into her characters with a bit of cigarette smoke. The first story is “The Sailor Boy’s Tale”. A young sailor, played by Marcello Magni, is sitting on a wooden chest, smoking a pipe. He recalls how a falcon got caught in the rigging of a ship once and he climbed up to set it free. The scene is beautifully staged as the falcon is suspended in silk rope, performing astonishing acrobatic feats, whilst Magni climbs up a rope ladder laid out on the stage. Two years later he barters for an orange in a port town and sees a young girl (Kathryn Hunter) who tells him that she is waiting for the man she will marry. He offers her the orange in exchange for a kiss. The girl agrees but is called in by her father before they can seal the deal. The young sailor promises to return. On his next day off, he is heading towards the girl’s house when he gets caught up with a few Russian sailors, one of whom takes a fancy to him. The young sailor panics and stabs the colossus, played by Femi Elufowoju jr., arriving at the girl’s door with bloodied hands. She gives him his kiss but is unable to help him. A Lap woman offers to hide him by disguising him as her son.
After the author has told us a bit about her personal life with Baron Blixen, the next story, set in Persia, commences. A young student of theology named Saufe (Marcello Magni) studies the ways of the birds. He collects feathers and makes himself wings so he can get closer to God. When the elders learn of Saufe’s plan, they disapprove and send a dancer to him to distract him by pretending to be an angel.
There is some comic relief by a story about a learned fish before Blixen takes us to Africa and her colonial life and then tells us the tragic story about a feudal landowner (Marcello Magni) who has thrown a peasant into prison for setting fire to a barn. His nephew Adam (Femi Elufowoju jr.), who has just returned from England, doubts the man’s guilt and asks for clemency. The landowner agrees to set the man free if his mother (Mia Theil Have) can cut a gigantic rye field in just one day – it would take three men to achieve this task.
Blixen’s final story, “The Blank Page”, is a tale of aristocratic tradition and the purpose of bridal sheets. Although it is very short, it still pulls a punch, proving once again that Karen Blixen was a master storyteller.
Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni are outstanding in their various roles. Even when they play characters who are quite a bit younger, their performances are so convincing that one forgets about their true age. Femi Elufowoju jr. and Mia Theil Have also impress.
This production sets out to celebrate the art of storytelling and succeeds.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Our of Blixen is playing at the Print Room at the Coronet until 22 April 2017