Bill Buckhurst’s production of Glyn Maxwell’s commissioned adaptation of the much-loved short story Babette’s Feast by Danish storyteller Karen Blixen comes to the Print Room, Notting Hill.
The story tells the tale of Martine and Philippa, two sisters live pious, simple in a remote coastal village with their father, The Dean. Until Babette arrives at their door, a refugee fleeing from the French Civil War seeking sanctuary. The sisters welcome her into their home and she works as their cook, feeding the locals for many years. In a selfless act of thanksgiving, Babette creates a lavish feast for the people of the town.
Alongside a cast which includes the renowned Joseph Marcell, Sheila Atim leads the cast as Babette. #TBB10 caught up with her to discuss her role…
1# Ms Sheila Atim you’ve been quietly taking on this industry starring in very memorable theatre productions was acting a no brainer for you?
I started off with quite different ambitions when I was young, although theatre and music were always a part of my life in some way from the beginning. It took a few small events in my life to finally turn me to acting, although I think I was always going to be involved in performance in some way, I just didn’t know it at the time.
2# Sticking it out as an actor takes patience, resilience and faith who or what inspires you to keep going?
It seems we’re in a time where people are making sure they stand up and get counted, and that goes for race, gender, sex, age, sexuality – all sorts. So I think it’s important to tap into that and remember that someone somewhere finds you interesting or intriguing or wants to hear your story or hear you tell theirs. Equally, there are a whole list of people who continue to make breakthroughs and achieve the unexpected in this world. It is a notoriously tricky industry so it helps to know what you’re up against but still keep a broad perspective.
3# What was the first production you were cast in that made you feel like a ‘real’ actress?
My first professional job was, The Lightning Child at the Globe with Che Walker and Matthew Dunster. I’d been involved in the workshops while I was still at Uni; I never expected to be a part of the final show. I assumed I was holding the fort and they’d get the real guys in to do the proper job. So I felt like a bit of an imposter for a while. But I had so much fun and learned so much. So once I got an agent and started to work more, I realised that this was a long term thing and very much what I wanted to do. But even so, there isn’t a sense that I’ve ‘arrived’ so to speak. Every job has something new to learn and it’s still early days so I just take everything one step at a time.
4# Tell about us this latest play, Babette’s Feast …
Babette’s Feast is about a French woman seeking refuge from Paris during the days of the Paris Commune. She ends up living with two sisters in Norway and is largely mysterious to the community until she decides to share her gift with them.
5# What’s your character’s motivation and how did you discover her personality?
Babette is someone who is escaping persecution and has lost everything. That is a common story worldwide and that was where it all had to stem from. How would you be if you’d come from a place of extreme violence and you’ve been thrust into a place of safety which is completely unlike anything or anyone you’ve ever known? You begin to automatically develop physicality and personality through thinking about these things alone before you even have to add your own detail.
6# This is an old ‘much loved’ tale will this production be a modern adaptation?
Glyn Maxwell, who has adapted the original short story, has managed to create this new script while still capturing the essence of Blixen’s original style. The simplicity and purity of language is something present in the original text and very reflective of its setting in Norway. I think the story itself, although set in a different time, is still resonant. Essentially, it’s about the meeting of two very contrasting cultures under relatively extreme circumstances and how both parties deal with that and learn to share what they have with each other.
7# What has it been like working with Joseph Marcell, have you been able to avoid bringing up The Fresh Prince of Bel Air?
It is great to work with actors that you’ve grown up with for many reasons. On a selfish note, you get to meet your heroes and on a career note, you get to learn a lot from those who paved the way. I haven’t brought up the Fresh Prince, as much as it was a huge part of my childhood I didn’t feel there was a need to. We’re working together on something new, and although I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded, I didn’t want to make that a ‘thing’ or give the impression that it was how he was defined in my mind. So I stuck to quiet excitement from the sidelines while forming a new connection with him as a much respected colleague.
8# Do you have a pre-stage routine or mantra to get into the zone… do you still get nervous?
My pre-stage prep is relatively simple – try and rest, make sure my voice is ready and my body is relaxed. I still get adrenalinsed as opposed to nervous. That’s very much a natural part of it for me, because you’re energised and you care about telling the best version of the story to the people sitting opposite you. I try to avoid nerves because I don’t think they’re helpful but I try and use the adrenaline to my advantage.
9# Along with acting, you’re a composer, how do you fit it all in and do you plan on working on screen?
I have appeared in a film version of Twelfth Night with director Adam Smethurst as Viola and Sebastian. I had a great time and do hope to venture into screen work again. I feel I have a lot to learn from that particular medium. I am also trying to push myself from writing songs for myself to composing for larger projects. I’ve been collaborating with Che Walker on some short films and I hope to continue in that vein to see where it takes me. It can be tiring but somehow a passion for these things drives you to make the time available, even if it feels a bit impossible at times.
10# What’s next for you?
Next up, I’ll be at the Old Vic starting rehearsals for Girl from the North Country, which I’m very excited about. It’s a beautiful story and it’s Bob Dylan’s music so I can’t really ask for much more.
Babette’s Feast runs at the Print Room at the Coronet 9 May – 3 June. Book tickets here.