Print Room at the Coronet, 10th May, 2017
Ahh Babette’s Feast. A gently understated but uplifting Oscar winning film directed by Gabriel Axel (it beat Au Revoir Les Enfants to the 1987 foreign film prize !!) that ranks pretty high up on my list of all time faves. Of course being the literary simpleton that I am, I know nothing of the Karen Blixen (pen name Isaak Dinesen) book on which the film was based nor of Ms Blixen herself. Other than, you guessed it, the film version of her memoir Out of Africa. So just as well then that I have the insight of the SO who is on top of (not literally) Ms Blixen’s work though, to my surprise, confessed to not having read Babette’s Feast. She does do a mightily convincing impression of Meryl Streep playing Blixen/Dinesen though.
So we went into this adaptation with high hopes but I confess lowish expectations just in case. The recent adaptations of films/books for the stage that I have seen have been mixed, Red Barn, City of Glass and, it sounds like, Obsession, on the debit side of the ledger, offset by the successes of My Brilliant Friend, The Kid Stays in the Picture and The Plague. Anyway I have to report that I think this Babette’s Feast is a resounding success.
There is a deal of poetry in the source material so getting a poet by trade, Glyn Maxwell, to write the play was inspired. There are a few minutes at the beginning when Babette, played by the striking Sheila Atim (who, along with Leah Harvey and Jade Anouka, blew my socks off in the Donmar Shakespeare trilogy alongside the splendid Harriet Walter, and is now set to star in the Old Vic’s Girl from the North Country), came on a bit strong with the lyricism. But the reasons for all of this became clear as we moved through the story which was told through spare but still elegant prose and with simple but haunting staging.
At its heart this is a tale of an outsider being embraced by a community and she, in turn, showing them that joy can be found here on earth as well as the heaven that they imagine. As well as capturing the harshness and drabness of a life in a village perched at the periphery (Northern Norway in the book, windswept Jutland, beautifully, in the film) it also shows how adherence to strict religious orthodoxy can also limit opportunity and imagination. The two daughters, Martine and Philippa, of an austere, though well meaning pastor father, find joy in love (a man in a uniform) and singing (the sublime Mozart) respectively, but no escape from duty. Babette in turn, is forced to flee Paris as the Commune is suppressed in 1871, and, through a fateful connection, finds sanctuary in the village. The suspicion of the tight-knit villagers, shown with real humour here, turns to love as Babette’s true art is revealed.
Wonderful stuff. And Mr Maxwell’s writing and Bill Buckhurst’s direction really resonant as we come to understand the loss that Babette has endured and as we empathise with the plight of the refugee. We also grasp the redemption that art (here in the form of opera and cuisine) can offer. Yet this is all laid bare without sacrificing the fairy-tale quality of Blixen’s work.
The experienced cast playing the more mature characters are uniformly top notch but, as well as Ms Atim, I would particularly draw attention to the performances of Rachel Winters as young Philippa and Whoopie van Raam as young Martine (in her professional debut – she was one of a collection of tremendously talented female actors I saw in a final year Guildhall School production of Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece, Top Girls).
This was our first visit to the Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill. What an absolutely enchanting space. It has the same shabby vibe as Wilton’s Music Hall and the dressing and lighting (you can’t beat a bit of candlelight) in the bar especially is tres romantique. Nice, open stage and a compact, but still airy auditorium. Mind you if you are a big unit beware the seats at the front of the “rear’ stalls where a low wall doubles up as a effective instrument of circulatory torture.
I see there are plenty of tickets left so I really think if you can carve out the time over the next month or so this is a splendid night out and at c. 100mins straight through, hardly demanding.