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Festen (The Celebration)

Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov
Barbican Pit
(2011)

Rufus Norris and David Eldridge together created what many will see as a definitive stage version of Festen.

It is still refreshing to see what other companies can do when it comes to adapting the unforgettable Dogme 95 debut film written by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov.

This version directed for Nottara Theatre, Bucharest by Vlad Massaci combines three separate cultures, as the Danish movie is first translated into Romanian and then presented in the Barbican Pit with English surtitles.

The real strengths of this production lie in an absolutely claustrophobic staging with the actors hemmed in on three sides by audience members and on the fourth by a glass wall adorned by a variety of symbolic animal skulls.

This is the home of the Klingenfeldt-Hansen family, although all of the children have fled the roost. They return to celebrate the 60th birthday of patriarch Helge, played with remarkable intensity by Alexandru Repan.

The great man has clearly lived his life as a harsh disciplinarian so the return of his children has something of the character of a typical British Christmas when the best laid plans of mice and men often fall horribly apart within minutes of reunion.

From the opening, bitter disagreement seems inevitable although initially girlish Linda played by Cristina Păun seems happy enough. It is only slowly that we realise that she is a ghost returning like Hamlet Senior to avenge herself on the culprits behind her recent suicide.

Wild, young Michael, Dan Bordeianu, is apparently banned after previous excesses, while his much quieter brother Christian, played by Ion Grosu, appears on the brink of nervous breakdown, though we soon learn why.

The evening's mystery is developed further thanks to the efforts of Ada Navrot’s Helene, who searches for clues that might lead to a final communication from their missing sister.

After suitable approbation for the birthday boy, Christian rather spoils the effect by denouncing him as a paedophile who for years abused his own children and particularly Christian himself and Linda.

What transpires can be difficult to behold as the family goes into meltdown first in desperate denial and then abject despair as they realise that the rock upon whom all hope has been built is false.

What makes this production worth bringing all the way from Romania is the acting of all of the leading performers but particularly Alexandru Repan who effortlessly moves from celebratory mode to belligerent defence and finally collapse.

He gets particularly strong support from Ion Grosu who portrays Christian as a man on a mission to achieve catharsis quarter of a century too late.

Festen still seems just as powerful on stage today as it did when it launched the low-budget Danish Dogme concept of moviemaking that turned Lars von Trier into a global name.

Now, 13 years on, Vlad Massaci and his excellent collaborators catches the same feeling of fear, intimacy and urgency in an engrossing 100 minutes.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher