At the centre of this Romanian production of Festen, which is based on Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov's playtext of their seminal 1998 Dogme film - the same used by David Eldridge for his thrilling 2004 version - are two powerhouse performances from Alexandru Repan and Ion Grosu.
They play father and son Helge and Christian, who have gathered with the rest of their family to celebrate Helge’s 60th birthday in the family pile. But the skeletons soon come popping out like jack-in-the-boxes when Christian accuses the proud patriarch of abusing him and his recently deceased sister Linda as children. The revelation is dealt with in different ways by the gathered guests. Some gasp, some sing, and the poor MC simply carries on regardless.
The dining table takes centre stage in Vlad Massaci’s production, which jettisons the bedroom and external scenes depicted in the film and retained in Eldridge’s version. As a result the action is more focussed but the private exchanges lack intimacy; quite literally in the case of younger brother Michael (Dan Bordeianu) when he attempts a quickie with his wife on an armchair.
But let’s return to those central performances. Grosu lends an innocence and rabbit-in-headlights vulnerability to Christian that is deeply affecting. He visibly trembles when he first greets Helge, and perfectly captures the essence of a man living constantly in fear. When he exclaims “Where are you?” to the ghost of his dead sister (an intermittent presence on stage), it is as much a psychological as pragmatic question.
The white-suited Repan is a genuinely frightening presence as Helge. He struts around like a mafia boss, his white shoes glistening in the lights. He reacts with anger when his wife raises her eyebrows at him for inviting his grandson to sit on his knee, and by the end has descended even further into appallingly misguided self-pity.
A few of the key lines - notably Christian’s initial revelation - fail to hit home as effectively as they should due to the inevitable surtitle delay. And not casting a black actor in the role of Gbatokai is a mistake, meaning Michael’s racist slurs look odd to say the least.
But despite these drawbacks there is much to admire in Nottara Theatre’s economic staging of a family melodrama that continues to send shivers down the spine.