Festen - Review

One of the meanings of the Danish word Festen is appropriately Festival and this production exceeded its place as a Fringe event – it was worthy of being part of Brighton's main Festival.

The play is a study of the hypocrisy within a large and wealthy family who gather to celebrate the 60th birthday of the head of the family.

It is obvious right from the beginning that there are undercurrents within family life – not the least being the recent suicide of one of his daughters.

During the speeches at the dinner a shocking truth is revealed the eldest son, Christian and its delivery provided a moment of true theatrical magic. What followed were the reactions of the family members to this revelation. The blind eyes, so long turned away, are forced open to devastating effect as the family disintegrates.

One approaches any production that has Pat Boxall at the helm with the highest of expectations and this one did not disappoint. It was a fusion of faultless direction and superb acting. Staging the piece with a large cast, bearing in mind the limited space available, was finely judged. The set was simple yet impressive with its starkness. The long black dining table with subtle overhead lighting dominated and brought to mind a religious comparison – The Last Supper. In fact for this family it would prove to be their last supper as a complete unit. The music used, along with the lighting, created a brooding and eerie atmosphere.

The atmosphere took on a menacing air with the singing of birthday songs as they went from festive jollity to ritualistic chanting. In the programme notes the play is likened to a Greek tragedy and this came out with use of the three servants urging Christian to finish what he had started. They served as a Greek chorus depicting the Furies calling for revenge.

It would be hard to find a better cast as every actor invested their part with an air of naturalism. The many understated performances gave the production its power and provided its audience with a theatrical experience that was riveting throughout.

With such wonderful ensemble playing it is not possible to single out every performance but I would like to make a couple of observations.

Matthew Houghton's Christian was an example of the effectiveness of underplaying – his quiet measured delivery produced a greater shock when he made his revealing accusations. Likewise a controlled performance from Bob Gilchrist made the father believable as he countered the accusations. The man's affability masked the true monster.

Proof that small roles can also make an impact was provided by Emma Cunliffe as Pia, the maid in her relationship with Christian. Her sensitivity showed the girl to be a truly loving friend and not an exploitive servant. A similar impact was made by Peter Milner as Grandfather on the edge of dementia. It would have been so easy to overplay this role and turn it into a caricature. Again the role received sensitive handling and what emerged was a bewildered Chekhovian figure.

Apologies go to the rest of the cast for not mentioning their performances as do my grateful thanks for an enthralling theatrical experience.

 

Barrie Jerram
3 May 2009