Festen ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Festen, dramatised by David Eldridge, based on the dogme film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo Hr. Hansen, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting by Matt Scott. With Nicholas Bell, Julia Blake, Melinda Butel, Ditch Davey, Jason Donovan, Julie Eckersley, Kim Gyngell, Bob Hornery, Chris Kirby, Alex Menglet, John Stanton, Kat Stewart and Greg Ulfan. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 23

I have to begin this review with an abject confession. Yes, gentle reader, in things cinematic, Theatre Notes is a dolt. Not only have I not seen Thomas Vinterberg's film Festen, on which this play is based: I have never even seen a Dogme film.

As everyone else knows, Dogme was a Danish collective of avant garde film makers started by Lars Von Trier in 1995. Dogme was defined by a manifesto which excoriated the decadence of contemporary cinema and called for a new, democratic purity. Directors were exhorted to put aside the bourgeois individualism of the auteur, refuse artifice and devote themselves to revealing reality. To this end, they were expected to adhere to a Vow of Chastity.

Festen (Celebration)
was in fact the first Dogme film. Given the austerity of the Dogme vow - which prohibits any kind of illusion, including props, sets, lighting or even bringing extraneous items into a location - it seemed to me an unpromising basis for that child of metaphor and illusion, the theatre. And in any case, I am inclined to be suspicious of theatre that chases the illusory glamour of film.

I am, of course, always glad to be proved wrong, and Eldridge's adaptation turns out to be brilliantly theatrical. Although I found its conclusion mystifying (which may have been a function of the production), I was compelled by a script that was at once tough, subtle and muscularly gestic.

The celebration of the title is the 60th birthday of a wealthy hotelier, Helge Klingelfeldt (John Stanton), held shortly after the suicide of one of his daughters. When his oldest son Christian (Jason Donovan) rises to give the toast, he reveals a shocking family secret. This prompts a succession of increasingly violent reactions as the household - the extended family and servants as well as the parents and children - struggles through denial and is finally forced to confront the truth.

It's not quite as direly therapeutic as it sounds in this bald summary. It is saved from the Oprah Winfrey genre by the complexity and subtlety of its characterisation, which allows for a truly human contradictoriness to emerge in its portrayals, and by how the drama opens up metaphorically to become an indictment of bourgeois mores. Its exposure of the sadism, hypocrisy, racism and exploitation running underneath the skin of capitalist society made me think (uncharacterically) of a film that also opens with a family celebration - Visconti's masterly exploration of the roots of Nazism, The Damned.

Moreover, there is a genuine fascination in its close observation of the rhythms of social convention, how human beings protect themselves from painful realities through rituals of habit. This is reinforced by staging meals in real time - tables are set, people are seated and real food is eaten - which gives the action a compelling frame of veracity. And there are moments of theatrical magic - one scene weaves three separate dialogues from three bedrooms seamlessly together, replacing simultaneity of time with simultaneity of space. In a beautiful piece of choreography, all six characters end up on the same bed. Awesome theatre.

The Dogme anti-aesthetic aims to focus attention entirely on the story and performances. It is possible to do something similar in the theatre: there's a parallel aesthetic in the early Keene/Taylor Theatre Project productions, which were presented in a working Brotherhood of St Lawrence warehouse using only the objects found there as props.

The necessary artifice of the stage presents its own obvious challenges. The English production of Festen, directed by Rufus Norris, solved this problem with a design of formidable austerity that sculpted a play of light and shadow on a mostly empty stage. Simon Phillips gives us a much softer interpretation. Shaun Gurton's set - a semicircular framing of hauntingly-lit birch trees - avoids the literal, but it is a tad pretty and lyrical. And it is overdressed, a frequent flaw in MTC designs, with gratuitous touches such as a chandelier descending from the flies that distract not only the eye, but the mind.

This slightly fudged air continues through the production, which leaves you feeling as if you just missed something: it's as if the emotion of the play is a melody half-heard in the distance. Phillips has some excellent actors at his disposal, and elicits some fine performances - in particular, John Stanton as Helge and Julia Blake as his wife, Else, who give controlled, understatedly powerful performances. Julie Eckersley and Ditch Davey as Christian's dysfunctional brother Michael and his put-upon wife create an authentic energy of violent, damaged sexuality. Bob Hornery, Alex Menglet and Kim Gyngell as the comic mechanicals provide some requisite black humour; but few of the other performances quite hit the mark.

Jason Donovan in the central role of Christian is an emptiness in the middle of the production. There is, of course, a sense in which he is meant to be a kind of black hole, exerting a traumatic gravity into which he draws the rest of the family; but for all his exertions - and there is no doubt he is working his arse off - Donovan seems strangely absent as an actor. He mistakes mere blankness for the emotional numbness of trauma, and confuses emoting for the material of real feeling.

A sense of actorly self-consciousness flaws Kat Stewart's performance of Christian sister Helene as well. For all its toughness, Festen is a delicate play that depends crucially on a sense of authenticity in performance, and in this production emotional nuance is terminally blurred. Hence, I think, the puzzling ending, in which the writer has either lost his nerve or something has been crucially misunderstood.

The final scene is a family breakfast which appears to tie off the traumas of the previous night's action in a neat bow: catharsis is attained, everyone is healed and the repentant malefactor is punished. It all feels rather too pat. Here I really am hampered by not having seen the film: does it really finish with such simplistic psychologising? I had the feeling that something else was happening subtextually that just wasn't apparent in this production: a certain menace, perhaps a certain manipulative reassertion of patriarchal power. But here I am only guessing.

Despite this, Festen has moments of real potency, and Phillips' flair for stage choreography is well in evidence, especially in its early scenes. It's an opportunity teasingly missed by a very small margin. Unfortunately with a play like this, the small things really matter.

Picture: Jason Donovan as Christian. Photo: Jeff Busby

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