Festen is a dark piece of work. If you get a kick out of a group of people being horrible to each other for an hour and a half, then this play may be for you.
Andrea Moor directs this stage adaptation by David Eldridge of the Danish film by Thomas Vinterburg. Vinterburg co-founded the Dogme 95 movement along with Lars von Trier, which attempted to establish a stripped-down way of making film, requiring the directors to use only available light, sound and props, limited post production and action that takes place in real time. As such, the script of Festen seems like it would translate relatively easily from screen to stage.
Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe this family of weirdos with rampant personality disorders. Not a single one of them is likeable or seems to possess any redeeming qualities. The notable exception is the play’s protagonist, Christian (Henry Hammersla), who dares to reveal the truth about the family. Also the Little Girl (Emma Diaz) manages to stay above the fray, but of course she doesn’t have any lines and simply flits about bedecked, head to toe, in innocent white.
That being said, let’s roll with the idea that not all the characters have to be likeable in order for us to find merit in a play, which is often the case. Is there some other quality or idea that makes this play worth watching? Is there a message to impart, or is it a fascinating character study? What am I supposed to take away from this experience? I honestly struggle to find an answer with this production.
The performers have done what is required of them. It can’t be easy to live for several weeks in the world of this play of abusers, users, neurotics, racists and jerks, so I have to say they have all been very brave and enthusiastic in their performances. There is plenty of physical and emotional gusto in the conflict on display, but I don’t relish watching them fight and taunt one another. Instead of drawing me in, the conflict repels.
The production values are good; there’s a beautifully painted drop at the rear of the set (design Lance Kershaw-Ladu, head painter Ben Byrne) featuring a pack of dogs at each other’s throats, a reminder, just in case we weren’t sure, about what was happening on stage. There are bits of feather, fur and other animal symbols to be found in the costumes (Charlotte Gee). Andy Fraser’s fight choreography shows us once again that there are so many creative ways people can throw each other around the stage and not actually hurt themselves (I hope).
I wonder if the essence of the original film got lost in translation from screen to English-speaking stage, and then got distilled down even further by using young Australian actors who aren’t quite yet ripe enough for the challenges that this play presents.
I left the theatre wondering how the original film managed to treat this odious pack of genetically-related Danish degenerates. If nothing else, this puzzling play has led me to explore further a bit of cinematic history.