views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Space
4th July 2013


Simon Higgins as Michael

Photography supplied by The Space

Like Moira Buffini's rather innocently titled play Dinner, the 1998 film Festen - penned by Mogens Rukov, Bo Hr. Hansen and the now somewhat well known Thomas Vinterberg - doesn't hint at the explosive nature of the gathering in its name. But Nordic film has never had a reputation for forgettable schmaltz, whilst still not a mainstream genre over here, what has made it to our screens has been hard-hitting and visually striking. Don't let the title fool you, Festen isn't all fun and games.

In the stage adaptation by David Eldridge, the dramatist has given Space Productions and director Danielle McIlven the material to capture those powerful emotions and strong imagery typical of Scandinavian movies. His script is fantastic, but to the company's credit, they've added some wonderful direction and acting and not just coasted on the text. Obviously in a theatrical setting she can't perfectly replicate the Dogme movement that spawned the original film (rules of no lighting, no artificial sound and props only to be found on-location would be preposterous) but she has struck a fine balance between naturalistic and dramatic. This is an excellent production, where every individual element comes together to create a glowing bang.

Siblings Christian (Rowan Finnegan), Helene (Ami Stidolph) and Michael (Simon Higgins) have assembled at the family home - a working hotel, run by their parents Helge (John Sears) and Else (Bernadette O'Brien) - to celebrate Helge's 60th birthday. Large celebrations are second-nature to the family, but the atmosphere is initially sour, with Michael having been expressly missed off the guest list for previous bad behaviour, and everyone still mourning the recent loss of Christian's twin sister Linda. One of Helge's lodge brothers and self-styled Master of Ceromonies Helmut (David Brown) does his best to get the party back on track, but a dark secret revealed by Christian threatens to not only derail the evening, but the family's future. What is said cannot be unheard.

The 13-strong cast all bring something to the table - metaphorically as well as literally - making it difficult to give them all the praise they deserve. Finnegan however must be singled out as he has one of the hardest roles to play, excelling as golden boy Christian. He is calm, numb, angry, devastated - at one point, he even looks in danger of collapsing and being physically sick, in an incredibly realistic and moving performance. There were rows of tissues out in full force, with Finnegan in no small way responsible for the audience's silent tears of sympathy.

Rowan Finnegan and Ami Stidolph as Christian and Helene

Photography supplied by The Space

Not all of the characters are as significant, but even those with minor parts shine. Albert Lechley, for example, makes an understated Grandfather, quietly sitting at the table for the most part, then reacting with utter confusion and sadness at the turn of events. The elderly man cannot understand exactly what is unfolding in front of him, age having won over, only gather all is not well. When traditional songs are heartily sung, Grandfather throws himself into these as well, the memory of what to do ingrained. It's the new and unexpected that he cannot handle.

The main colours in Faye Bradley's intelligent set are eggshell blue, crisp white and earthy browns. It's a perfect misdirection, the stage hinting at the calm and natural environment that the family portray outwardly, when under the surface, things are anything but. There is also a delightfully Nordic efficiency to the design, with the bed transforming into a long dinner table.

McIlven uses this design to maximum impact. The main stage, with the simple bed there, is used as three separate rooms at the same time, the action carefully layered to create a sense of how busy the hotel is. The action never collides - we see Christian and Pia (Sadie Parsons), Michael and Mette (Jessica Boyde), Helen and Lars (Jack Govan) - their stories unfolding concurrently, but never at the detriment of each other. It's a well-orchestrated scene, and one of the many examples of McIlven's undeniable skill.

Scene changes are also dealt with cleverly - rather than stage hands resetting the traverse stage for the dinner party, the paid help - Kim (Luke Stevenson), Pia and Lars - deal with the changeover in plain sight. At other times, the end of a scene is abruptly signalled with a quick blackout. It's difficult to get the angles right with an ambitious layout like this, but the party games are used by McIlven to move the guests around the full space and swap seats regularly, without it ever feeling contrived. This gives the audience a good view of all the actors, and a chance to see how all the characters interact with each other as well as how they react to the events of the night. There is never any doubt as to where the main focus lies, but it's fascinating to observe how those out of the spotlight are behaving too - as well as a dark drama, this play is a study in human nature.

This production of Festen is gut wrenching - it tackles some very difficult themes and takes the audience to a very black place. Due to the nature of the play, it is difficult to sit through, but it is as compelling as it is shocking. It's perhaps an odd choice for this current season, the summer in full swing, with frivolous and light-hearted plays more suitable to London's current mood. But as I walked outside, the summer sun still having not faded, it struck me how McIlven had transported me to a different world for two hours. For the full length of the production, it felt as if the real world had stopped. And this is perhaps what really matters, what proves a show is truly special - when it can convince you that nothing exists but the live story in front of you.

Festen may well make you cry, and that may not be what you want from a play at the moment, but nonetheless you should see it anyway. When Fringe theatre can pull off something as accomplished as this, there's no reason to not go off-West End for your culture fix.

Festen ran from 2nd to 19th July at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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