Festen began life as a film. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, it was one of the more successful endeavours of Lars Von Triers’ Dogme experiment, a treatise that forbade the use of special effects and non-linear narrative to try and create a purer form of cinema focused completely on story and character.
Dogme was a logical reaction to Hollywood excess. But whatever their merits, these rules cease to be relevant when it comes to the theatre, so director Rufus Norris and adaptor David Eldridge had to employ some rather different techniques to bring Festen to the stage. The resulting production was a huge success, both with the critics and with the public, playing initially at the Almeida from March 2004 before transferring to the West End. It featured in the majority of critics’ Best of the Year lists and the current touring production remains a dark and thrilling proposition.
Festen translates as the Celebration and the play takes place during the 60th birthday festivities of patriarch Helge at the large chateau hotel that he owns. His friends and family have gathered for the occasion, including his sons Michael and Christian, and daughter Helene. A fourth child, Linda – Christian’s twin sister – is absent, having only recently committed suicide.
The party gets underway in predictable fashion, lots of drinking and general merry-making, plus some rather creepy singing of traditional family songs. But when it becomes time for Christian to make a speech in honour of his father, he chooses to drag an appalling family secret out into the open. The fall-out from this is both terrible and compelling. Initially he is met with denial and indifference but this soon boils over into anger and violence. The party – the celebration – becomes an animal force, a character in itself, determined to continue against all odds.
Festen is a superb piece of theatre – disturbing, yes, but also blackly comic. The current cast is more than up to the standard of their predecessors (who included Johnnie Lee Miller and Jane Asher). As Christian, Christian Coulson gives an excellent portrait of a man driven by guilt as much as anger, there’s little nobility in his actions. Miranda Foster, as Helene, realistically depicts the pain of someone waking up to the truth about her father; Mark Theodore has a bemused dignity, as her boyfriend Gbatokai, the outsider amidst this deeply dysfunctional family, who stays with her despite some shocking racial abuse from her relatives. And Robert Goodale supplies a little levity as a whiny family friend.
The staging is also inspired. Ian MacNeil’s bare black brick set, with its long central table, is used in endlessly inventive ways by Norris. The long table is a familiar stage prop (much of The Voysey Inheritance takes place around one) and they can sometimes act as a barrier between performers and audiences, but here that’s never the case, and in fact it allows for one of the play’s most audacious scenes – a dialogue-free five minutes as the assembled guests pick nervously over their dinners.
Eldridge’s adaptation is pitch black but completely engaging, eliciting not one but several of those sure signs of a rapt audience – the communal gasp, the mutual intake of breath. The repeated use of dripping water and children’s laughter is genuinely eerie, not clichd as these devices often can be.
Festen is a difficult watch but a rewarding one; I don’t remember the last time I felt the tension so palpably in the theatre. Believe me, after this, you’ll never hear the announcement-heralding clink of cutlery against glass in quite same way again.
Rufus Norris and David Eldridge’s Market Boy opens at the National in May 2006.