FringeReview UK 2017
Glyn Maxwell has adapted Babette’s Feast in the second of the two Blixen Season dramatizations curated by The Print Room at The Coronet. Bill Buckhurst directs a cast of eleven. Simon Kenny’s design utilises rough-hewn tables that fit together and can be whizzed about on castors. Amy Mae’s lighting complements mime cooking. Georgina Lamb’s movement direction is crucial. Olly Fox’s work as composer is played on-stage at key points. Harry Johnson’s sound design conjures gunfire and calm. Till June 3rd.
We’ve reached the second of the two Blixen Season dramatizations curated by The Print Room at The Coronet. This time poet Glyn Maxwell has adapted the single story. Bill Buckhurst directs a cast of eleven, in a more richly orchestrated, less circuitous round of stories than Out of Blixen. The result’s even more hypnotic, and the dream state isn’t broken here either.
Simon Kenny’s design utilises rough-hewn tables that miraculously fit together and can be whizzed about on castors. But all this Norwegian wood – where the story’s set – is deceptive. There’s a sumptuous feast of Amy Mae’s lighting as well as a rich red tablecloth and silver candelabras. The feast though is the mime cooking, the extraordinary dance of hands distilling and refining. Georgina Lamb’s movement direction is crucial. And did I mention music? Olly Fox’s work as composer is played on-stage at key points. Harry Johnson’s sound design conjures terrifying gunfire and absolute calm in an envelope of fluent story-telling.
Maxwell’s used to long storylines, has written long narrative poems like The Sugar Mile. So his writing also adapted to fleeter lyric forms is usually deft and involving.
Babette’s a cook we discover calming fellow-communards in 1871 as establishment French forces corner and shoot nearly everyone. She’s taken out of this concatenation of suffering she thinks to her death – her husband and son already shot; she has no-one. Somehow she escapes to northern Norway and two sisters, daughters of The Dean (Joseph Marcell), a strict religious sect. Taken in, she serves them twelve years. Everything Sheila Atim brings to this role is of moment: poise, dignity, stillness and sudden activity. He story-telling preludes her gift of radiating out the ingredients of devotion, her craft.
These daughters too own a backstory, told with compelling simplicity. Young Martine played by Whopee Van Raam making her debut carries something of Atim’s stillness and poise, in her shy response to the young lieutenant Lorens Lowenheilm (Ladi Emeruwa). Their tendresse – all shy glances and closer meetings – is broken by his posting away. But he will one day return, though he thinks never.
Young Philippa – Rachel Winters – possesses a superb voice which we in fact hear. Henry Everett’s Achille Papin a musician discovers her and in an exchange of Don Giovanni and Zerbinetta kisses her. It breaks the spell, he’s banished, though it’s he whose letter later recommends Babette. The girls grow nearly fifty years into Diana Quick and Marjorie Yates. Van Raam’s pianism chimes perfectly with Winters’ agile lyric soprano, both resonant in this miraculous theatre space.
Meeting Atim the rapidity with which these actors telegraph caution giving way to intimate dependence is lent agency and heart-warming mime as Atim’s Babette secretly modifies the food she’s asked to prepare, flavouring the plain fare discreetly. Quick embodies the renunciatory sad smile of her youth, and takes rapidly to the new refugee. Yates too exudes a warm quizzical softening.
Babette’s drawn a long-kept French lottery ticket too, squirelled in the piano; it comes up. Babette startlingly orders a Parisian feast, ingredients fetched by her nephew, where the cast – including Van Raam and Winters now serving when not playing – join in with some exceptionally-timed cooking. There’s an olfactory moment when real food smells hit us though the plates are empty. A cunning ploy. There’s much mockery in a mimed turtle.
The ageing sect have quietly sworn not to relish or comment. Amanda Boxer’s Kara, someone secretly fond of the fare she disdains, brings a quirky laughter to her role. Richard Clews’ Sven, all sanctimony with long toils of grace at the table, perpetually reminds everyone of venality, pride, luxury, and pitches in like the rest. Norma Atallah’s Lisl holds out longest, as Kara snaffles her ‘lemonade’.
It’s Veuve Cliquot, as the one sybarite who knows its true value, avers roundly, with each course. To this feast Joseph Martell – the older Lowenheilm – is invited. He praises each dish, saying only the cook of the Café Anglais could have conjured it. What follows is an affirmation of Babette’s sacrifice and art, a redemptive measure as the general too addresses the daughters, one of whom rejected her art, and both the chance of love.
This exposition might be of help since Maxwell’s script is seen by some as more evocative than lucid, though it works superbly with just that amplitude to help conjure Buckhurst’s cast into conjurers. They’re both dream-inducing and hyper-alert in Lamb’s movement direction, their timing and balletic movements spellbinding and unforgettable. It’s one of the finest recent productions from a theatre raising the most consistent magic in London.