JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BARONESS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.13.
3 stars ***
ROLLING into the Traverse this weekend after a long Scottish tour, Dogstar Theatre’s latest show offers a strange combination of fascinating themes, a high-voltage leading performance, and an oddly static and repetitive drama, which – in Matthew Zajac’s production – takes a leisurely two hours to visit and revisit an emotional landscape that is fairly thoroughly mapped out in the first twenty minutes.
Acclaimed as Denmark’s “play of the year” in 2011, Thor Bjorn Krebs’s two-act drama – translated by Kim Dambaek – explores the later life of the famous female explorer and adventurer Karen Blixen, born in Denmark in 1885, and immortalised in her own book Out Of Africa. In her early Sixties, back home in Denmark, Blixen encounters the young poet Thorkild Bjornvig, and strikes up a strange “pact” with him, in which she urges him to pursue his art by doing “the most dangerous and the most unheard of”, blowing his life apart in the process.
There are at least three fascinating themes here, one involving the clash between creativity and domesticity, another examining the charged relationship between a young artist and a much older mentor, and a third exploring the way in which Blixen’s continuing power, charisma and influence, as an older woman, seems – even to her – linked with witchcraft, or a pact with the devil. Roberta Taylor gives a powerful, vivid performance as Blixen, with Ewan Donald if fine form as the poet, and Aidan O’Rourke providing some terrific, jarring recorded violin music.
In the end, though, the story’s direction of travel is not clear, as it loops repeatedly around the same questions about Thorkild’s genius or ordinariness, Blixen’s creative inspiration or malign possessiveness. And though uncertainty in art can be a fine thing, there is a difference between a powerful dichotomy, held in productive tension, and the mood of confusion, and of constantly shifting direction, that finally settles on this strange and intriguing play.