Family celebrations are seldom straightforward affairs. The 60th birthday dinner for Helge in David Eldridge's dramatisation from the Danish film and play, Festen (which was a huge hit at the Almeida and in the West End), is no exception to that rule.
We are at a former château now run as a hotel. As well as the host and his wife Else, the gathering includes Helge's father, his two sons, daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. There is one daughter missing - physically, because she killed herself - but her spirit and the reason for her suicide shrouds the whole party. Yet this play is more than just another tragedy involving a dysfunctional family. It is also a comedy - bitter, even savage at times - but still a comedy. To sit down 13 at table is, after all, notoriously unlucky; but it does make good theatre.
Director Rufus Norris hurls his fourteen-strong cast at each others' throats and at us, the audience, from the moment Christian (Christian Coulson) greets his not-quite-so-successful brother Michael (Laurence Mitchell). If Ian MacNeil's black-brick set with table, chairs and bed materialising as required is meant to intimidate without distracting from the actors and the action, it most certainly succeeds.
The ensemble acting is very fine and the characters are generously portrayed. If Christian is somehow the hero (because he is prepared to say in public what others thrust into the whirlpool of deliberate forgetfulness), Coulson shows us a man who is in many other respects deeply flawed.
Rupert Frazer as Helge presents a clever, even likeable, paterfamilias to whom much would be forgiven. But not everything. Ultimately not even by his wife (Belinda Sinclair). Lucianne McEvoy is the daughter-in-law and Miranda Foster is the surviving daughter; they cope in different, subtly subversive ways.
There are two marvellous character studies by Robert Goodale and David Beames as archetypical bandwagon riders and the long-suffering, all-knowing hotel staff are Will Barton, Camilla Arfwedson and Neal Barry. Beginning the second act, Mark Theodore at once establishes that Gbatokai is something steadier and stronger than just Helene's latest anthropological undertaking; he has an inner certainty which no other character possesses.
Whether or not you know the film, go to see this play. It's worth the effort. The ancient Greeks loved the cleansing of emotion through evoking understanding and pity through drama. They called it catharsis. The name for our time might well be Festen.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Norwich Theatre Royal)