Update July 11: The scheduled performances of Babette’s Feast in August have been cancelled due to the Sydney outbreak of COVID. The play will be be moved to “some time in 2022”. Alison Chambers writes: “This production deserves to play to full houses of happy patrons soaking up the generosity and abundance of this story.” For more information, go to joiningthedotstheatre.com.au.
“I’ve decided that the world is divided into two groups,” Sydney-based actor Alison Chambers tells Eternity.
“One [group] who, when you say we’re performing Babette’s Feast, say, ‘Oh, that’s one of my all-time favourite movies!’, and the other group – usually under-40s – who just stare at you blankly.
“So there’s a whole generation who don’t know this story. I think that’s part of the excitement, to introduce the next generations to this gentle, beautiful story.”
Chambers will bring this ambitious production of Babette’s Feast to Australian stages for the first time through her theatre company Joining the Dots – a company she co-founded three years ago with friend, playwright and fellow Christian, Jo Kadlecek.
While Kadelecek has moved to a different role, Chambers says the mission of Joining the Dots remains unchanged – despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“One of the reasons why I was so keen to get this theatre company happening is because I really do believe that a lot of Christians have abandoned theatre,” says Chambers, speaking with Eternity before the latest lockdown in Sydney, where the play is set to debut in early August.
“I think they feel there’s nothing there for them. That’s desperately sad because it is such a precious art form. [Theatre] is still one of the few places where you can put forward ideas that will start discussions.”
She continues, “We want to tell stories that matter.”
“It doesn’t mean that the works themselves need to have overt Christian messaging … To produce plays that are thoughtful, challenging and that spark conversations, would be a very fine thing.”
Babette’s Feast certainly fits this criteria.
The story was popularised by the 1987 Academy Award-winning film by director Gabriel Axel. It was adapted to stage in January, 2018, premiering in Portland, Maine (USA), before enjoying a successful run in New York.
The play (and the film) is based on the book Babette’s Feast by Danish author Isak Dinesen (a pseudonym for Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, who also wrote Out of Africa). It’s set during the late 19th century in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland, Denmark. Here, two sisters are left in charge of a strict Protestant community (Pietistic Lutheran) after their father dies.
One day a French refugee from the Franco-Prussian War – Babette – arrives, asking the sisters to take her in as their housekeeper. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, turning the bland, austere meals dictated by their beliefs into more appetising fare.
One day, Babette prepares a decadent, seven-course feast for the sisters and their small congregation. Not only is the meal a celebration of French fare, but is also an act of “outrageous generosity” that shocks her neighbours but provides healing to their fractured community.
“It’s a story that everyone can enjoy and engage with,” says Chambers, “but for people of faith, they’ll see really deep theological messages in there.
“There’s this idea of self-sacrifice. Babette can certainly be seen as a Christ figure, giving herself and pouring herself out for the community, and bringing this community back into a real sense of love and joy.
“[The play also explores] the beauty of welcoming a stranger in, and accepting someone who may be different from the outside, and the benefit that can be to a community, what they can bring.
Chambers explains how the play points to the “healing, restoring power of true religion”.
“While the dear sisters [in the play] have given up, basically, on pleasure in life – thinking that is of the devil – Babette shows them that in fact the joys of food, of community, of this lovely, rich life is to be enjoyed. These are God’s gifts,” she says.
“I really feel this is such a tonic for [Australia] and such a beautiful message for now …
“Those of us who are in Bible-believing churches understand that [Christianity] is about a joy-filled relationship with God. It’s not about rules.
“[The play reflects] the whole picture of the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding feast. It’s this idea that God lavishes good things on us. It’s a very biblical idea.
“Sometimes we think that frugality is the height of piety, but in fact, the occasional act of outrageous generosity is absolutely warranted. And isn’t that what Jesus did?”
At this stage, Babette’s Feast is set to run from August 5-14, 2021, with 12 performances at Sydney’s Greek Theatre in Marrickville.
Tying in with the culinary delights in the play, Joining the Dots has teamed with social enterprise catering company Dinner on the Table, who will provide meal options for some performances.
When asked what she hopes audiences will take away from the production, Chambers says: “I really hope they have exactly the same reaction I had when I first read it. And that is, it’s a beautiful story. But the thing is with beautiful stories, that they stay with you. For days or weeks afterwards, the story will continue to work on you.
“And if this opens us up to the idea of welcoming in a stranger, if it opens us up to the idea of joy in our faith and abundance and generosity, or to a renewed sense that our God is a lavish, abundant, giving God, if we walk away with that, then that would be a job well done.”