This review contains spoilers.
Festen follows the story of a large family celebrating the 60th birthday of Helge the father of four children, one of whom, Linda, has recently taken her life in the family home where they all grew up. As the night continues, shocking revelations of child abuse are made public by eldest son Christian accusing his father of raping both Linda and himself during their childhood. The night continues as family members ignore, accept and encourage Christian’s further revelations.
Performed in the beautiful Rippon Lea Estate Ballroom, we were immediately transported into the world of this dysfunctional family. For the most part, the production was staged beautifully. The clever use of having performers outside the glass doors of the Ballroom while action was happening on stage really added to the feeling of peering into this world. Not having performers out in the audience before the show I felt was a missed opportunity, the audience would have been immediately transported if some of the actors were continuing with their lives around us before we entered the space.
The performance starts with Michael, played by Michael Mack, arriving at the family home and berating his wife for all sorts of things, an immediately vile character in the way he treats both his wife Mette (Hester Van Der Vyver) and the butler Lars (Charlie Ranger). Mack warmed into his role as his performance continued, however I felt in the first couple of scenes he hadn’t fully committed to the role and was holding a lot back. Mack was unable to create a believable ebb and flow of the many emotions that his character goes through in the first two scenes, however he definitely settled into his role.
Unfortunately the feeling of a lack of subtext flowed through a number of the main players, making it hard for the audience to care about the shocking events that were about to unfold. Helene (Aimee Sanderson), the sister of Michael and Christian lacked any subtlety and a lot of the time was so high-pitched her voice grated. Sanderson also held back in a lot of her angry moments with Michael and unfortunately I never believed that she was upset with any of the happenings of the night, especially surrounding the racial slurs made to her boyfriend. Mark Yeates was a little more believable as Christian and had a number of strong moments throughout the production. His ability to hold the long pause after making his ‘truth speech’ was very clever leaving the audience to digest everything that was just said. There was still a lack of build though in Yeates’ performance, much the same as Sanderson and Mack. I didn’t believe large chunks of the dialogue between these characters because of the lack of subtext.
In contrast, Rosie Traynor who played mother Else was simply stunning throughout her performance. Her subtlety was beautiful and while she rarely had much to say, I found myself drawn to watching her as the party unfolded. Her birthday speech was so measured and deliberate it was mesmerising but more importantly her reactions when it is revealed that Else ignored the signs of her husband’s doings was incredible to watch. Likewise, Adrian Mulraney as Helge also had a very strong performance. His ability to show so much of what his character is going through while these accusations are being flung about whilst barely moving from his seat was incredibly interesting to watch. Mulraney was also able to successfully show a hurt and anger under his cool and calm demeanour while speaking to his son after these accusations were made. Another fantastic performance. Other notable mentions were Tref Gare and Richard Moss, the comic relief, Liam Seymour the chef Kim who encourages Christian to keep coming clean and Tori McCann who plays Pia, who also performed with charming nuance.
As mentioned earlier, there were a number of beautifully constructed scenes, the most notable was the bedroom scene. A bedroom set was created by stage hands in the scene change and three separate scenes involving each of the siblings intermingled on the one set. It was a simplistic scene, beautifully choreographed, however it did lag throughout. The pacing was very slow and if it had have been picked up it could have been a fantastic scene without losing the impact the actors were trying to create. Slow pacing was also a theme in the scene changes. While they were also nicely choreographed they took far too long and in the huge space that is the Ballroom, it wasn’t utilised well enough to keep the ball rolling. This was coupled with poor music choices that, whilst they were fitting for the setting, jarred against the action on stage. The epically long pause at the start of each meal were also far too noticeable and it felt like the performers were forgetting their lines.
Festen is a powerful script that has the ability to leave an audience shell-shocked. Unfortunately, this production wasn’t able to come together enough to leave me feeling anything. The missed opportunity at the end where none of the family showed any objection to Else sitting with them at breakfast despite her involvement in the abuse was disappointing also. There are many great things about this production though and with some fine tuning it has the potential to be fantastic. It certainly felt like the production was in a place that would get tighter and better as the production continues its run and therefore is worth a look.