The Baroness Traverse Theatre

Karen Blixen is best known in the UK as the writer of Out of Africa, her memoirs of her life in Kenya, which inspired the 1985 Oscar winning film of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. She is a highly revered author in her homeland of Denmark and this Danish play, written by Thor Bjorn Krebs, was a major critical success when it opened in Copenhagen in 2011. The play has been translated by Kim Dambaek and brought to us by Dogstar Theatre, directed by Matthew Zajac with music by Aidan O’Rourke.

It takes place in Denmark in 1948 and tells of the relationship which developed between the 62 year old Blixen and a 29 year old poet. We first meet the poet, Bjornvig (Ewan Donald). He appears much older than 29, worn down by the pressure of expectations on him from his sponsor and his public to follow up his successful first published work of poems, from his new wife and young child to support them and give them his attention, and from his own self-doubt of his talent and abilities. He has been summoned by Karen Blixen (Roberta Taylor) to her home at Rungstedlund, she has read and admired his work and wants him to write her story.

Or at least that is what she says is her motive, we soon discover she wants more from him than that. Also there is Benedicte Jensen (Romana Abercromby), wife of Bjornvig’s sponsor. Benedicte warns him that Blixen “pulls the strings, we all have our part to play in her marionette theatre”.

The two writers, so very different in age and experience, form a pact, an intense and all-consuming relationship which ultimately leads Bjornvig to betray his wife and child, his sponsor and to give up his job. What is Blixen’s real motive? She says she only wants to challenge him to be the best writer he can be, to free him from the restraints he has placed in the path of his creativity. But there is also an unfulfilled sexual longing, she asks him what he sees when he looks at her – “a corpse…old age and decay?”, but she still feels alive inside. He is flattered by her praise and attention and falls under her spell, almost believing she really is a witch who has entered into a pact with Lucifer, such is her command over him.

The actors draw us into their mesmerising and destructive relationship. Roberta Taylor is excellent as Blixen, other than at times with too soft a voice which didn’t project well to the back row of the theatre and a couple of stumbles with her lines which broke the spell somewhat. It’s an interesting work, giving an insight into the character of a fascinating woman and her relationship with a young writer in the twilight of her writing career and the outset of his. In the end, he breaks their pact – he is no longer her “marionette” or “tame animal”. At last he has found his creative voice, but at what cost to his peace of mind and his relationships with friends and family.

Irene Brownlee