Apparently, Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Academy Award winning Danish film, adapted from a collection of Karen Blixen’s short stories. And apparently, the film tells the story of two Norwegian sisters raised piously by their father, and how they and the members of their small Norwegian village are tempted beyond piety by a glorious feast prepared by their Parisian refugee and cook, Babette. All of this may be true, but Babette’s Feast at the Coronet Theatre – a stage adaptation by Glyn Maxwell – stands on its own, taking to heart smaller, more intimate themes of Karen Blixen’s stories in a production that is cosy and humble.
The play feels like a meal itself. We open with an appetiser, a scene of refugees hiding in an unknown location at an unknown time, hiding from what sounds like bombs and machine guns. It’s a framing device that adequately lays the groundwork for the main story, but feels confusingly blurred and more meta-theatrical than necessary. A woman, Babette, begins to tell the huddle of scared villagers stories of a place, a place with a yellow house, a fire, two sisters. A place where all are welcome.
Each vignette Babette relates lays out the history of these two pious, hospitable sisters, Martine and Philippa. We are shown the story of Martine’s rejected suitor, a young sergeant who becomes a grand general. We are then shown the story of Philippa’s rejected suitor, an actor who believes he has found his perfect soprano. With these stories now told, Babette herself vanishes, and her listeners become her storytellers.
We are brought with the now exiled Babette to Martine and Philippa’s small village, a society that has grown old together. The villagers speak in repetition, biblical quotes, and meaningful silences. There are well-worn grooves in the road that their wagons always follow. This community is held together by the two sisters, and by their strict adherence to their father’s rules for a virtuous life. Babette, as a revolutionary Communard of 1870s Paris, both threatens and upholds their community.
Holding a philosophy of ‘all are welcome here’ remains absolutely vital, but Babette’s difference (notably, it is unclear whether this production has been race-blind in casting; the colour of Babette’s skin is never brought up, but it nonetheless lends another perspective on this all-white Norwegian village), her language, her revolutionary life, and her exquisite and exotic cooking tests the villagers’ practice. After twelve years of working in silence for the two sisters, Babette insists on preparing an elaborate feast for the village. Determined to respect her only prayer, the sisters and villagers agree, and vow not to comment on the feast as it occurs, in order to respect Babette.
It is hard not to think of the mottos of ‘Open London’ and ‘All Are Welcome’ that – for some – have gained prominence since the Brexit vote, of the millions of Syrian refugees displaced and desperate for somewhere to all , and of the reality of small, English life, its insularity, its old grooves. But if Babette’s story is meant to be a parallel to today, then it presents hope for both these communities and these refugees; Babette’s feast expands the community’s palettes, both literally and figuratively. In turn, the villagers recognise their own limitations, the ends of their knowledge, and use their own values to process and embrace the new.
The feast itself is, strangely, not really about the food. The lack of props speaks to the simplicity of the community, and to the sense that the feast itself contains elements beyond what these people understand. We pay attention instead to the rituals of dining, to the many glasses, to the bowls, to how each person slurps their soup, and to the fascinating rhythms that dictate how we interact with each other and how we eat.
Babette herself is magnificently played by Sheila Atim, yet I feel she has not been given enough to work with. Although the play is titled after her, the production is focused mainly on the sisters and their community, with Babette as a symbol more than a character. The production’s dessert – her conversation with Philippa and Martine as to why she provided the feast – is Atim’s greatest moment, but it comes almost as an afterthought in the play’s final minutes.
Babette’s Feast is at the Print Room until June 3rd. For more details, click here.