AS Irene Raymond in EastEnders and Inspector Gina Gold in The Bill, Roberta Taylor became a household name, creating two of telly’s best known characters of the 90s and noughties.
Say the name Karen Blixen, her latest role, however, and the chances are you’ll be met with blank looks, unless you also mention the 1985 movie Out of Africa. The film, which won seven Oscars, is loosely based on the autobiographical novel by Isak Dinesen, a pen name of Danish author Karen Blixen.
Born in 1885, Blixen used a number of pen-names in a life plagued with tragedy. When she was just ten years old, her father hanged himself after being diagnosed with syphilis, a condition that would later afflict Blixen herself. She died at the age of 77, in 1962.
At the Traverse on Friday and Saturday, Taylor brings the writer to life in Dogstar Theatre Company’s autumn production,The Baroness - Karen Blixen’s Final Affair, by Thor Bjorn Krebs.
It’s 1948 and Blixen is 62. She has recently met the married and successful 29-year-old poet Thorkild Bjørnvig. The two share a powerful and intimate friendship, one that would last six years before falling apart.
The play charts the course of that liaison and the relationship of a third character, Benedicte Jensen, wife of Bjornvig’s publisher.
“Karen Blixen is a fascinating woman who, in the first half of this play, comes across to some people as not very pleasant,” says Taylor.
“I like that. I like playing people who are truthful and not always using charm, and it is a true story; she had a difficult life, she suffers with syphilis, has had half her stomach taken away, and has bouts of complete agony.”
The challenge of capturing all that for Taylor is heightened by the nature of the piece, which collects together scenes inspired by anecdotes, letters and books by and about both Blixen and her young friend.
“Once it starts, it’s episodic, so you don’t have any chance to prepare for the next scene. You just have to throw yourself into it from the top. Even though time is passing, lights are changing, and music is playing with each scene change, it’s the first time I have done a play in which you just have to dive in like that.”
That Taylor herself is also a writer and novelist (Too Many Mothers was published in 2005 and The Reinvention in 2008) allowed her to better inform her portrayal of Blixen.
“Well I hope it did,” she muses. “At the beginning of the play, she is enduring a ten-year writer’s block, and we all know what that feels like - very, very grim. To compensate she picks young male poets or writers and tries to help them to release themselves.
“So although the play is about lots of things, one of those things is something very close to my heart, which is this - if you want to be an actor, a writer or a musician, you can’t have the mentality of a bank manager and want a regular pay packet. You have to take a gamble with your life. It can never be about the money.
“What Blixen is telling these young men - although you only ever meet the one who was the most important to her, the only one she ever allowed to move in - is that you have to let go of your ordinary life if you want to step into something greater.”
It’s an ethos by which Taylor appears to have lived her own life.
“When I became an actor, I thought that if I could pay my gas bill, I’d be rich. What I find amazing now is that in the 35 years that I have been working, everyone with an ordinary job has to live like that too,” she reflects.
Consequently, the 65-year-old reveals it wasn’t too difficult to give up the regular and lucrative income afforded by her time on our TV screens.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” she assures, candidly. “I did EastEnders purely for business reasons and it worked, and I stayed at The Bill longer because I had two books to write and it was better to know where I was going to be so that I could work my hours around those hours - each book took me three years to write.”
But while both jobs may have been a means to an end, that’s not to say actress didn’t enjoy them, but then Taylor, a bit like Blixen, is a woman who enjoys extremes.
“I had such a laugh and met such a lot of lovely people doing those shows.
“But TV is such a different discipline. Your brain muscle changes when you have to read scripts and learn lines as you have supper at the end of a 14-hour day.... but at least you have a chance to go again on telly,” she laughs. “You know, I always say an actor is meant to be miserable. If there was a collective noun for actors it would be a grump of actors because, if you’re doing theatre, you want to do telly, and if you’re doing telly, you want to do theatre. I think that’s a great way to keep your mind alive.”
If you also happen to be a talented author, you get to throw writing into the mix too.
“Well, I spend more time writing because I enjoy it more,” confides Taylor.
“I shouldn’t say that really, but I love the fact that theatre and television are so social; you are working with other actors, some you like very much, some you’re maybe not so keen on; either way, you work as a team and you have a laugh.
“When you are writing, you are completely on your own, in peace and quiet. I love both extremes.”
The Baroness - Karen Blixen’s Final Affair, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, Friday and Saturday, 7.30pm, £15.50, 0131-228 1404