Family gatherings are always a great setting for drama but Festen, David Eldridge’s theatrical adaptation of the original Danish film, is an example of dramatic excellence.
A picture-perfect family comes together to celebrate the 60th birthday of the beloved patriarch Helge. It’s been a difficult period - they have only recently lost their daughter Linda - but it is time to rejoice and celebrate. Yet when son Christian makes his speech in honour of his father, dark secrets and a dysfunctional past begin to show through the cracks. Over the course of an evening this outwardly respectable household has to face up to a truth which they would rather have ignored.
Festen is a play in which the script, direction and acting culminate in a superb production. The plot develops at a satisfying pace from the opening scene, a creatively directed moment which depicts the three children in their separate rooms preparing for the evening’s party. The bullish Michael, convincingly played by Simon Higgin, is on edge while the younger sister Helene, a zesty Amy Stidolph, struggles with her own identity and secrets. Completing the trio, Rowan Finnegan plays the troubled Christian with incredible emotional depth, flitting through his range with subtlety and great control. The three together display convincing banter, recreating a realistic sibling bond with aplomb.
A further brilliance of Festen lies in the acknowledgement of the complicated nature of family relationships. A life-long history of emotions and experiences are intertwined and engaged with on stage. The speech as a catalyst is therefore wholly believable, as are the calm and measured response by the father Helge, a very solid John Sears, and the emotional reply by the mother Else (Bernadette O’Brien.)
The fantastic supporting cast adds welcome light moments to the drama. The grandfather, played by Albert Lechley, deserves particular mention for his comedic timing. The performance also contains a fair number of congratulatory songs that become more ironic – and more uncomfortable – as the play goes on.
Charming, engaging and entertaining, Festen has you on the edge of your seat as the play unfolds at an incredible pace. For all that the cast create a realistic and and sympathetic portrait of domestic life, at the end you’re just happy it is not your family.