The Danish author Karen Blixen committed her life on a Kenyan coffee plantation to paper in her memoir Out of Africa, but, look closely, and you'll find it echoing through her fiction too. She floats in and out of her own fables in this devised piece by the Riotous Company; a wistful presence watching violent tales unfold. It's as if she looks at life's cruelties as one should a solar eclipse, indirectly, and buries her personal pain in airy flights of fancy. "In front of the blank page," Kathryn Hunter purrs as Blixen, "even the storytellers veil themselves and are silent."
Blixen moved to Kenya, then part of British East Africa, in 1913 – just before marriage and just before war. At the end of the Empire, she watched the British beating down on the local population, and stoically endured the syphilis passed on by her unfaithful husband, Bror Blixen – the twin brother of the man she really loved.
All this shows up, slowly and surreptitiously, in her stories. She's in the young girl shocked at the sailor who kills for a kiss, and in the student distracted from his life's work by a lustrous angel, apparently fallen to earth. Is she also the fish that floats, zen-like, at the bottom of the ocean, letting both the water and the world wash over her? For all their seeming slightness, each tale knows its target. Blixen saw her pen-name as her nom de guerre.
Huddled in her fur coat, beneath a jewelled turban, Kathryn Hunter is the spit of the author. Her weathered face could have been blasted by 17 years of Kenyan sun, and she speaks with the crisp rasp of Victorian colonialism, even if the underlying warmth of her voice betrays an empathy well ahead of its time. That manifests itself in a drawn-out allegory of a woman who works herself to death, harvesting a whole rye field single-handedly for the sake of her son's freedom. This from a plantation owner who left half her land empty for locals to roam over and graze on.
The more stories we hear, the harder it is not to find Blixen therein. She ghosts in between them, appearing out of the wispy white veil of Luis F Carvalho's design, to tee up each tale with an autobiographical. Hunter slices up Out of Africa itself, teasing out the parallels. The result is two portraits of an artist in one.
For all Out of Blixen showcases both Blixen as a writer and writing – the sort of show that sends you straight to the bookshelves – it's far less convincing in theatrical terms. Hunter's staging stays strangely earthbound, too flat-footed to take flight. Mia Theil Have's avian aerial routines sit awkwardly with the street theatre gusto of fellow cast member Marcello Magni. If Hunter's aiming for juxtaposition – feathery fantasy and harsh reality bound together – the two only serve to cancel one another out.
At best, it's a show that washes over its audience, contenting enough as company, but bittiness works against it and Out of Blixen never justifies itself as anything more than a labour of love.