I had called this, after all, “one of the most electrifying nights I’ve ever had in a theatre” the first time I saw it (see below); and so I was ready to be disappointed. Maybe that judgement would prove to be rash; or maybe the change in venue and cast would alter its texture. In fact, I am astonished and overwhelmed all over again.
Even knowing the outcome now, or maybe especially knowing that, I find this family’s bruising, emotional long night’s journey into a day of irrevocable reckoning even more harrowing than before. It is, indeed, the most powerful drama of a family’s tortuous implosion I think I’ve ever seen since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. As this family makes their grim flight away from and then towards the truth, I had to stifle my own sobs in the midst of theirs.
David Eldridge’s adaptation and Rufus Norris’ extraordinary production is so densely layered and detailed that I also marvelled anew at the amazing psychological detail, rage and violence that are uncovered. But if that makes it all sound unremittingly grim, there’s also a surprising amount of humour that came to the fore this time for me, too.
While I doubted that the original cast could be bettered, they have been more than adequately equalled here by their brilliant successors. As the two brothers, Luke Mably (looking a little like a younger Rupert Everett) and Rory Kinnear are heartbreakingly good. And Stephen Moore, taking over as the father, is all-too-horribly plausible and seemingly sincere as a man finally being called to account for the damage he’s caused his children, and trying to deflect it one last time.
No less wonderful are the performances from the rest of a spellbindingly fine cast that includes Jane Asher, brittle and deliberately unsympathetic as the mother, and Claire Rushbrook as the surviving daughter. This family may prefer to forget what happened, but they never will. Nor will you: this is an absolutely unforgettable night of theatre.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following review dates from March 2004 and this production’s original run at the Almeida Theatre.
After submitting one sexual taboo to intimate exposure in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? that dealt with a love that dares not bray its name, the Almeida now lights an even more powerful fuse under another still more lethal and damaging one, and detonates it explosively.
Festen, based on the searing 1998 Danish film of the same name, tackles the accusation of a father's long-term sexual abuse of two of his four children, and creates a powerful, painful and poignant portrayal of a family plunged into a desperate crisis.
At a gathering to celebrate the wealthy, outwardly respectable father's 60th birthday, his wife, now adult children, brothers and servants join to toast his health; but there's someone missing from the party. That's daughter Linda, twin sister to oldest son Christian, who it turns out had committed suicide.
And now Christian has some old scores to settle with his dad, and uses this public occasion to do so. As long suppressed family secrets come tumbling out, to the initial dismay and disbelief of the rest, the party - seated at a long table in Rufus Norris's extraordinarily tense and vivid production like a recreation of the Last Supper - faces a shattering, irrevocable reckoning.
This is an evening of gathering and eventually gut-wrenching tension that Norris ratchets up with a forensic intensity. (It is slightly dissipated by the unnecessary inclusion of an interval; it would be far better played straight through). As we are plunged headfirst into this churning atmosphere of secrets and revelations, it's difficult not to feel at once implicated and sullied: we are made to bear witness to a very private and naked kind of pain and grief, and the simple act of watching it feels intrusive.
But that's the incredible power both of David Eldridge's coolly measured adaptation of the original film script, in which the characters speak in eloquent silences as well as unbearable rage, and of a quite astonishing ensemble cast who animate it with raw feeling and eventually overpowering emotion.
As the three surviving siblings, Jonny Lee Miller, Tom Hardy and Claire Rushbrook capture perfectly the familiarity, hostility and rivalry that binds them; as their parents, Robert Pugh and Jane Asher offer frighteningly plausible studies in denial of what they're hearing, but know to be true. But then everyone in the company completely inhabits the skin of this family, and gets right under yours.
I was by turns stunned, appalled and completely gripped from beginning to end by one of the most electrifying nights I've ever had in a theatre.
- Mark Shenton