Highly lauded company, Play Dead Theatre, is about to set the Rippon Lea Estate Ballroom alight with David Eldridge’s explosively dramatic play, Festen. A stage adaptation of a Danish film of the same name, Festen is a significant piece of theatre that really needs to be told.
Versatile and award winning, Jennifer Sarah Dean, takes the directorial chair for this Olivier Awards nominated play and feels Festen has never been more relevant. “On a broader level the idea of dysfunctional families has always been one that most of us can connect to, but the themes of undercover abuse and sexual violence could not be more relevant in a contemporary climate,” she says. “The play focuses around someone confronting their abuser and in doing so highlights many issues that our contemporary society is currently facing in a very clever way.”
Dean posits that the appeal of this play is obvious to every person who has read it, and describes it as majestic. “It confronts some really hard hitting themes with truth, humour, subtly and a narrative that keeps you gripped from start to finish,” she says. “It’s tragedy and farce wrapped up in a beautiful, accessible modern setting. From the moment I started reading I could already see the characters, visualise the staging and I knew that I needed to bring this work to life. Not only is it beautifully crafted but it also has real message and confronts important themes.”
Dean trained at the Globe Theatre in London and is the Artistic Director of the Melbourne Shakespeare Company. Adding to her divinely eclectic mix, Dean directed Holy Cow! (as part of the James Joyce Festival and based on James Joyce) earlier this month. For Dean, style and form are secondary when it comes to the sorts of stories she likes to tell – it seems, the play’s the thing…
“This play ignites my passion for story telling, being immersed in another world and going on a journey with characters in that world,” she says “The themes in FESTEN are dark and confronting but it is told through a wonderful narrative and you really go on a journey with the family. I love being able to take audiences on a journey whether it be a classic love story like Romeo and Juliet (which I am directing later in the year) or on a journey through language like in Holy Cow!”
Festen centres around a large and wealthy family, and is set in the ancestral home, as the members gather to celebrate a 60th birthday. The Rippon Lea Ballroom (and heritage listed historic Estate) becomes the perfect backdrop for the opulence and heritage of the occasion. A cast of 15 will occupy the unconventional theatre setting when the play opens next month, but the search for a play of substance and appeal was not easy.
“Play Dead’s producer Michael (Mack) and I had been searching for the perfect follow up piece to Tape which we put on in 2016 and had been struggling to find a play that we both connected to. But as soon as we read FESTEN we knew we had found the perfect piece,” she says.
When reading FESTEN Dean had already envisaged the Rippon Lea Ballroom in her head. “I knew I wanted to immerse the audience in the characters world and having such a perfect venue right on my doorstep (I live in Ripponlea) it seemed like fate<” she says. “There are some challenges by not having had wing space, or run arounds that mean that I have had to really choreograph all of our entrances, exits and set changes in order to make sure we can sustain the world of the play but the benefits of such an iconic venue far out way the challenges.”
Dean acknowledges the fantastic and dedicated pool of actors who are so passionate about this piece and their roles. “The biggest challenge in the rehearsal room is that they are so enthusiastic it is hard to get them to stop and go home or take a break! They are constantly wanting to add more levels and discuss additional ideas and depth to the characters as it is really important to all of us that we respect and do justice to this story,” she says.
Festen is thought provoking, striking theatre that will challenge. Says Dean: “This play is contemporary theatre at it’s best. FESTEN is a electrifying, shocking, poignant modern tragedy that cannot fail to resonate. Featuring some of Australia’s most talented performers it is the first ever play set in the Rippon Lea Ballroom and a truly unique opportunity that you won’t want to miss.”
July 5 – 22
Images: Sarah Walker