After a heatwave of Nordic Noir over the past few years, it makes my Danish heart flutter that the Print Room has decided to celebrate Karen Blixen, one of our greatest storytellers and an all-in-all pretty inspiring woman (lion hunting and intense coffee consumption aside, of course).
Karen Blixen, also known by the pen name Isak Dinesen, is best known for Out of Africa, an account of her life while living in Kenya running a coffee plantation (we Danes do like our coffee). A remarkable storyteller and personality, the task of condensing her life and works into an 80-minute performance seems both challenging and intriguing.
Riotous Company, a company that blends physical theatre and storytelling with live music and dance, brings us a flavour of Karen Blixen’s universe with Out of Blixen. Rooted in the training of Odin Teatret (another Danish pearl), Riotous collaborates with the incredible Kathryn Hunter and co-founder of Complicite Marcello Magni to take us to a world where storytelling is like a dream – weird and wonderful, with the wit of Blixen’s pen.
The play takes us through the short stories The Sailor-Boy’s Tale, The Diver, Sorrow-Acre and The Blank Page, interwoven by Hunter’s strikingly accurate Blixen, taking the audience through her fairy-tale like imaginings. A boy kills a friendly giant to get to his lover in time; a young man tries to reach the angels like Icarus and is deceived; a woman ploughs a field in a day to save her son’s life. Like folk-tales, they’re all filled with mystique and teachings of morality and fate – being used to the more front-footed political theatre scene, it’s like being drawn back into a childhood picture-book and leaving reality for a moment.
The staging is simple: It’s storytelling in its pure form with object transformation; a myriad of characters played by a few actors, sometimes taking on the role of the narrator (mostly by the charismatic Femi Elufowoju jr.) and conversing directly with the audience. It has the essence of old school devising, of theatre being a playful process rather than a commercial outcome.
Luis Carvalho’s design consists mostly of thin curtains blowing softly, transforming themselves into the sea; into Blixen’s African farm. This, coupled with aerial work by Mia Theil Have, is mesmerising but where the minimalistic set helps the imagination, it also restricts it.
Kathryn Hunter’s moments as Blixen are entertaining and endearing, and the company’s physical commitment is remarkable. Everything is there: stilts, live music by Nikola Kodjabashia, animal work, and dance. What is missing is a clearer structure – a thread that keeps the narrative together. The short stories seem interlinked at moments, but it’s unclear why these particular ones have been chosen and what the play really wants us to feel. There are some beautiful visual ideas, but as a whole it’s a bit too fragmented to really carry you away to Blixen-land.
Out of Blixen is playing at The Print Room until 22 April.