‘The Baroness: Karen Blixen’s Final Affair’ (Traverse; 27-28 Sept ’13)

Dogstar Theatre The Baroness Roberta Taylor (Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) Photo credit Leila Angus

Image by Leila Angus

 “Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

For a country where summer temperatures struggle to exceed 20°C, in terms of cultural exports, Denmark and all things Danish are surprisingly hot right now. Successes such as The Killing and Borgen have rocketed outside awareness and interest. Among Denmark’s literary superstars few are more fascinating than Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen (1883-1962). The Baroness is the story of her final affair: a platonic entanglement with a much younger poet.

We enter to find two harp-shaped window frames with fewer right angles than the Goetheanum. In one hangs a tribal mask intended to conjure images of Blitzen’s years as a coffee planter in Africa (I think it resembles Norman Tebbit). An eclectic harmony of furniture perfectly captures the sense that we are looking into the dwelling place of a mind born for the Belle Époque. Her young companion is evidently much less at home. He belongs instead to that new generation which Kennedy’s Danish-American speechwriter would describe a year before Blixen’s death as “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

The friendship of Blixen and Thorkild Bjørnvig is a matter of historical record. At times the script creeps into the realm of docudrama. When Blixen encourages her protégée to abandon his wife, child and work in order to compel the flow of his artistic creativity, she laments that Denmark is “flat as a duck pond”. Similarly, the muted script gives little sense of a tempest brewing in, or subsequently howling through, the hearts of the protagonists.

Roberta Taylor as Blixen and Ewan Donald as Bjørnvig provide well-rounded individual character sketches. There are flashes of real insight, such as Donald’s steadily improving posture, but there is little shared fascination. Blixen is portrayed at the centre of a social and cultural web in which she occultishly snares young bloods with which to feed her imagination.

Several of the techniques deployed to fill a stylized frame with stylish content are over hesitant. The dramatic function of the mutual friend (played charmingly by Romana Abercromby), for example, is uncertain – diverting more than developing the over-lengthy central narrative. By the interval I think I’ve got the point. Other than the brightly conceived set transition from Blixen’s home to Bjørnvig’s northern hideaway, not much more is said or done.

Pace was a problem throughout. Far from crisp efficiency, the frequent scene changes are slow (although composer Aiden O’Rourke’s bold, introspective score make this less of a negative). Projection was a problem too, I did not feel played to in the steeply tiered back row of Traverse One.

Dogstar Theatre squeezed hard and a good amount of zesty juice was delivered into the glass. If their future endeavours maintain the very high standards set by The Baroness for smart, funny staging of deep, moody drama then we can expect great things from them in the coming years.

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 28 September)

Visit The Baroness homepage here.