Festen (Danish for ‘party’ according to Prof. Google) is Red Phoenix Theatre’s first production for the year. It is high quality theatre, as we have come to expect from Red Phoenix, but it is an uncomfortable and unsettling experience. More on that later.
Adapted for the stage by award winning English playwright and academic David Eldridge, Festen is based on the screenplay of the 1998 Danish film of the same name directed by Thomas Vinterberg. The play follows a large wealthy family who gather to celebrate a 60thbirthday at black tie family dinner. When the first speech is given by one of the sons in ‘honour’ of his father, for whom the party is being held, he instead accuses him of having sexually abused him and his sister when they were children. From there it all goes downhill, and quickly, although it didn’t start all that well as the volatile siblings dealt with their disequilibrium at being forced back into the company of each other and the extended family.
When an allegation of sexual abuse is made, let alone one of intrafamilial abuse, one might suppose that all hell would immediately break loose with furious displays of temper, denial, indignation, and counterclaim. But none of that really happens in Eldridge’s Olivier Award nominated play, at least to the extent one might expect. And this is the unsettling thing. Eldridge instead chooses to allow the allegation and response to play out almost as a (very) black comedy of manners. For example, one guest at the party suggests that the revelations are not helping his depression, which was greeted by snickers of laughter by this evening’s near capacity opening night audience at the Holden Street theatre. But that is the stuff of good writing – being able to evoke a range of responses from the audience, even when the response seems to be embarrassingly inappropriate.
Director Nick Fagan has brought together a uniformly strong cast, and it is large – fifteen actors. Some of the roles are necessarily smaller than others, but the actors playing them had maximum impact and crafted richly embroidered characters seemingly with back stories that piqued the curiosity of the audience. Fagan himself stepped in to play a small role because the cast member was under COVID19 protocols, and he was terrific. Nigel Tripodi, as the son Michael, was noteworthy with his portrayal of unhinged and visceral anger. Geoff Revell played Poul with an almost wilful disregard for the plight of those around him as he grappled to keep his own nose above his rising tide of depression, and he was amusing. Brant Eustice played Christian, the accusing son, with a savvy mix of fear, trepidation, outrage, and festering rage. Eustice excels in bringing to life characters who are ‘on the edge’. Cheryl Douglas was excellent as Pia, Christian’s secret lover and servant at the dinner party. With a telling smile here and a suggestive glance there, Douglas gave an object lesson in body language. Adrian Barnes played Helge, the accused family patriarch, with simmering disdain for Christian and his other children. Again, a well-crafted look was all that was needed to convey high emotion. Georgia Stockham, Claire Keen, Lyn Wilson, Gary George, Joh Hartog, Russell Slater, and Stephen Tongun all created believable characters, and Sienna Fagan (director Nick Fagan’s daughter in real life) was endearing as the young child who remained seemingly unaffected by all the madness and vitriol that unfolded around her.
Fagan’s set design was simple and well manipulated – especially when it changed from a bedroom to a dining room, although this substantial transition (necessarily) took some time to achieve. An underscore of original music by Pat Wilson (with suggestions of Philip Glass and Franz Schubert) added gravitas and a sense of foreboding as the transition unfolded. Costuming assisted in conveying a sense of privilege enjoyed by the dysfunctional family.
The subject matter of Festen is disturbing, and occasionally making light of it is risky and provocative, but it works. Festen forces one to confront the tragic reality of lives destroyed by child sexual abuse, and our thinking is honed as we ponder that special place in hell that is reserved for perpetrators.
Photo: Richard Parkhill