Festen

Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo HR. Hansen in a dramatisation by David Eldridge
Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
(2004)

Festen poster

Festen is the most powerful play to be seen in London at the moment. Its ability to shock its audience into silence is second to none and, by the end, they stagger out of the auditorium stunned.

Festen was the second film to be produced under the Dogme Manifesto. A group of Danish filmmakers decided that the way to make realistic film was to cut out all of the artifice. With a script of this type, it worked perfectly.

After a sell-out run at the Almeida, it has now transferred to the much larger Lyric and even with an understudy, the excellent Daniel Gosling, in a major part, seeing it is an astonishing experience.

A family group gathers at the magnificent house of patriarch and expert in mind games Helge (Stephen Moore) for a black-tie dinner to celebrate his 60th birthday. He is a successful restaurateur/hotelier with a beautiful wife played by Jane Asher. Seemingly the only dark clouds on his horizon are his unpleasantly violent, racist son Michael, played with real vigour by Rory Kinnear; and the sadly mysterious recent death of his daughter Linda.

The family is so close-knit that the business colleagues and domestic staff seem like members of a slightly extended version of it. Initially, this adds to the jollity of the occasion.

Suddenly, as everybody sits down to dinner and the laudatory speeches commence, a distraught, heartbroken son, Christian, in this case played by Gosling, stands up to speak. By the time he has completed his accusations of incest and rape against his father, nothing can ever be the same again.

Despite the efforts of Michael Thomas and Sam Cox as the thuggish family retainers, nothing can stop Christian from a desire to martyr himself in his cause. In doing so, he initially brings denunciations on himself but, ultimately, this speech sets in train events that subsequently rip the family apart.

Almost everything about the production is perfect. David Eldridge's dramatisation is complemented by Rufus Norris's direction, at one stage simultaneously running three scenes introducing us to the surviving siblings. The idea of using a bare, subtly lit stage to represent a sumptuous country house is surprisingly successful, as its minimalism suggests a coldness underlying the apparently happy family.

There is also much superb acting and it is almost invidious to pick out Stephen Moore as an unspeakably nasty, if very affable, and Helge, Daniel Gosling and Rory Kinnear as being even better than the remainder of such a strong cast.

There are many subtle touches that enhance the production. The ghostly laughter and bouncing little blonde-haired girl bring dead Linda in front of us. Some rousing drinking songs create an appropriate feel, while a rolling table, rising bed and servants appearing from the bowels of the Earth both speed the action and convey the house and its atmosphere.

The play works on many different levels. It is a complex psychological drama that delves into a family's darkest secrets. The staging of the dinner scenes, with the assistance of Jean Kalman's lighting, gives an impression of the Last Supper with its implied Crucifixion.

In its portrayal of Helge, and the private world that he has created, Festen can also be interpreted as an allegory about a Fascist totalitarian state, in which racism is the norm and a word out of place will lead to a beating.

Unless you are squeamish, Festen should not be missed.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher