Festen

Tue 6th – Sat 10th March 2012

reviews

Sean Hewitt

at 00:11 on 7th Mar 2012

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1disagrees

Festen only lasted around two hours, but that’s a long time to hold your breath for. This production of Eldridge’s adaptation of the 1996 film (released in the US under the title ‘The Celebration’) is a tense, harrowing and emotionally-draining piece of theatre that gradually robs its audience of all their strength, brutally beating off layer after layer of comfort and comedy until the stage finally descends into stunned silence.

Director Niall Wilson’s risk-taking paid off beautifully, and it is obvious from the start that the technical team behind this production were as skilled and cohesive as the cast. For the most part, the stage is dominated by a stark white banqueting table, which helps the audience to gauge the play’s progressions, going through various stages of dishevelment before being re-laid for the next course. However, when the table is pulled back, and the audience is met with the gaping, high-vaulted ADC stage, so rarely used at its full size, the single setting is used as a backdrop for a variety of scenes, with Eldridge’s script often choosing to conflate many episodes into one simultaneously-acted scene in which characters in different settings are placed in close physical proximity, again allowing the audience to act as an omnipresent guest at Festen’s quickly souring party.

Perhaps the most effective, though subtlest, example of this comes in a scene towards the play’s close, where the youngest actress, the mesmerising Saskia Baillie, who plays the little girl, is placed onstage next to the haunted, and haunting, Will Attenborough (playing Christian). Attenborough delivers a performance as nuanced and terrifyingly emotional as we’ve come to expect of him, amongst Cambridge’s best male actors. His eyes flick about the stage, trying to grasp some sense of security, and his face hits the perfect note between restraint and anguish. Saskia Baillie is cleverly dressed in bright pink, a striking contrast to the black of the other guests’ dinner-wear, and so becomes the symbolic embodiment of the innocence which becomes just another broken myth for the other guests, as the script powers ahead into darkness. During the scene, Baillie sings and Attenborough cries for his dead sister, Linda, and the effect of the clever staging leaves the audience almost unsure as to whether the little girl isn’t actually, in a way, Linda herself, in her previous, innocent state.

Other notable performances came from Luka Krsljanin, who finds strength in the character of Michael: he is tempestuous, even abusive, but Krsljanin plumbs the character’s depth and reveals him to be just another mythmaker, unwilling to have the vision of his father smashed before his eyes. Similarly, Ben Kavanagh, who plays the father, Helge, uses his charming affection for his sons to win over the audience, though, when when the script turns, our sympathy wanes sharply. However, his performance was perhaps not as strong as in some of his previous roles, such as Joe Keller in All My Sons, but this might be down to the script, which doesn’t allow as much time for his defence as it does for his childrens’ attacks.

It would be impossible to mention each cast member by name, but this was one of those rare productions which wasn’t let down by anyone: each character was completely worked through, and none slipped, even during the considerable silences, in which the audience’s attention was focused solely on gesture and awkwardness. Festen was a theatrical experience which it is difficult to find comparisons for. It doesn’t rely on climax or spectacle to stun its audience, but instead saps the room’s light away gently, offering dotted comic glimpses before cruelly denying any such false hope. It would be impossible to describe Festen as enjoyable, but it was haunting, exhausting, and, as the lights went up, the audience turned to each other, exhaled, and left the theatre numb, yet surely thrilled with the sheer endurance of it all.

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Comments

Edward Smith; 4th Jul 2014; 20:19:01

I took my parents to see this production back in March.

You sum up the performance very well.

I would like to add that we had a wonderful evening.

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