The OneTouch Theatre
ONE of Denmark’s greatest literary figures, Karen Blixen, is herself the subject of this play looking at how one writer works her influence, for good or ill, on another.
Though a major hit in its home country, Thor Bjorn Krebs’ play, in this first English adaptation by Inverness-based Dogstar Theatre, has been on a tour of some more intimate venues across Scotland, from community halls to Eden Court’s smaller OneTouch Theatre.
This suits what is largely a two hander between Roberta Taylor’s aging and ailing Blixen and Ewan Donald as poet Thorkild Bjornvig, a rising star on the Danish literary scene.
The 29 year old Bjornvig has caught the eye of the 60-something Baroness, who insists he move to her estate as her protege — although it turns out that he is just the latest in a line of promising artists falling under Blixen’s spell.
That is an apt term as Blixen, making her first appearance in turban like headgear and ruling the lives of those who come into her orbit like an autocratic raja, hints at otherworldly powers.
"All art needs witchcraft," she informs Bjornvig before later trying to persuade him that the head injury he sustains as the result of a minor accident is the result of a psychic link she shares with the young author.
If at times Blixen is the wicked witch, at others her possessive mentor mirrors the role of a parent or a lover.
The subtitle of the play is "Karen Blixen’s Final Affair" and there is more than a hint of sexual interest in her relationship with a young man more than half her age, Blixen insisting they carve their names on a tree like young lovers, provocatively offering to sketch him as she did her Paris life class long ago, or semi-jokingly offering to set up a harem for Bjornvig.
So when it is revealed Bjornvig has entered into an affair with Benedicte (Romana Abercromby), the wife of his publisher and another member of Blixen’s social circle, unanswered questions arise as to whether Blixen has engineered the relationship as a sort of sexual substitute.
Best known for playing tough women on EastEnders and The Bill, Roberta Taylor adds an edge of vulnerability to the bruised Baroness, betrayed by both her aristocratic husband and her dashing pilot and hunter lover (the part played by Robert Redford in Out of Africa) and both sexually and artistically neutered by those experiences.
Donald — the only one of the three actors who adds a Danish inflection to his speech — undergoes the gradual collapse of his personal and professional life with a quiet Scandinavian reserve that echoes Aidan O’Rourke’s haunting music for the piece, while Abercromby’s brief but sprightly appearances provide a welcome shift of tone.
Conventionally staged on what amounts to a single set, this is a dialogue heavy piece that requires close attention.
This can make The Baroness rather hard going at times, though the odd sparky line and touch of pathos revives interest and keeps the audience going on to a low key ending that suggests both Bjornvig and Blixen have taken some benefit out of their strange pact — though at a price that may be hard to live with.