FringeReview UK 2017
Out of Blixen is one of two Blixen-themed productions this spring at The Print Room’s Coronet Theatre. Directed by and starring Kathryn Hunter with three actors in her and Marcello Magmi’s Riotous Company, the amterial is connectively over-written by Paul Tickell: it’s a distillation of four tales Karen Blixen’s wrote following Out of Africa selected from subsequent volumes.
Louis F Carvalho’s design, terraced by David Plater’s lighting. Nikola Kodjabashia plays an onstage upright infused with the scalloped hard edges of impressionist pianism.
Out of Blixen preludes Babette’s Feast in May-June translated by Glyn Maxwell.
Out of Riotous Company, Out of Blixen directed by and starring Kathryn Hunter is one of two Blixen-themed productions this spring at The Print Room’s Coronet Theatre. It precedes Babette’s Feast in May-June.
All sets and props apparate through five actors and Louis F Carvalho’s design, terraced by David Plater’s lighting. Nikola Kodjabashia strums an onstage upright moved periodically like a tinkly dodgem, with hallucinatory chords evoking a quasi-Nyman Piano or Adams-filtered Satie. It’s infused with the scalloped outer edges of impressionism. Incantatory tales are told. So even for this theatre, famed for its circle-haunting stage, Out of Blixen’s literally spellbinding.
Karen Blixen’s personal narrative in Out of Africa and subsequent volumes are well-known. Connectively over-written by Paul Tickell this distillation of four tales circumscribes themes, motifs and at each end a blank page. The simplest items drift into use. Red rubber gloves are bloodied hands or cockatoo crests, chairs thrones or upturned promontories, a simple box another. Curtains aren’t prosc-arch but whirl, diaphanous silken helicopter blades swooshing round globe-spun events.
A curtain shimmers, netting in heat: it morphs into a sail down which gyrates squawking a peregrine falcon snared in rigging. Mia Thiel Have’s first incarnation as spirit bird in turn snares the eponymous hero in The Sailor-Boy’s Tale; his saving of her has consequences. Marcello Magmi here takes on innocence. Attempting to re-visit Norah, a girl (Hunter) who promises a kiss, he’s detained by friendly Russian Ivan (Femi Elufowoju Jr.) whose overtures prove accidentally fatal. Whilst Norah proves true-hearted it’s Have’s bird-woman who saves him, knows everything, wounds herself and him (payback for a clout when being rescued). It’s these transformational touches, long preceding magic realism, even Borges, that render Blixen’s tales distinctive and more, best realised in theatre.
Elufowoju later seeks out Magmi, now a reclusive, mystical Diver in the connected tale of that name for what’s occurred in-between. Seduced by Have who nevertheless falls in love with him, the Diver literally loses Icarus-style wings he’d terrified the powerful with, simply by asserting difference. Blixen’s tales here gentle with sorrow, characters redeemed by remorse, the act of falling in love – something Have in particular evokes as the most alchemically mobile of actors.
We’re treated to such gems as pearls as disease of the oyster, fables as a disease of living askew; grit common to both. Hunter – whose ‘cow fish’ orated out of shadows twice is memorable – explains fish are nearest God because suspended, supported at all angles.
These are slant masculinist tales redeemed in the first by feminine agency. The latter two see women acted upon. Sorrow’s Acre concerns the effect of a bargain struck by plantation owner and Anne-Marie, who in exchange for her son’s life scythes a whole acre in a day. Elufowoju’s appalled nephew gradually appreciates the metaphysical nature of the deal struck by his rigid Enlightenment uncle, a bewigged Magmi sitting aslant the audience on a dais.
A comment too on the unredeemable stain of colonialism it moves into The Blank Page Hunter narrates, of a convent’s receiving back their specially-woven cotton: cut-out squares of virginal blood-stains of royal marriage beds, labelled like a museum. And one that’s not bloodied. Whiter than a sail.
Everything’s realised with magical economy. Hunter’s transformations into twelve-year-old girls and twitching dowagers hardly needs emphasising: she’s in her fluid element here, morphing into her own directed paces reminiscent of her stride in Peter Brook productions like The Valley of Astonishment at the Young Vic in 2014. Her husband Magmi similarly ripples a seventeen-year-old youth to a wizened Icarus or colonial patriarch. Have’s a mercurial wisp of sorrow and sinew, distinctively voiced like her older colleagues. Elufowoju centres a nodal point of decency and enquiry – our entry-point into the others’ evanescence. Kodjabashia’s playing is hypnotic; sometimes attentively absent, at key points it takes over with gently distracted dissonances.
The Europhile Print Room has transformed the Coronet’s circular space into a consistently visionary theatre. It’s one untouched by commercial imperatives, bravely reasserting values the more risk-averse have long abandoned. In our current darkness it gathers the gold against it.