Brighton Fringe 2011
A family gathers to celebrate their father’s sixtieth birthday with a black-tie dinner but a traditional party night of food, wine and song is shattered by some truly shocking revelations. By the time the eldest son, Christian, completes his speech in praise of his father nothing can ever be the same again. Stunning, compelling, disturbing and not to be missed.
A family reunion celebrating a father’s 60th birthday should be the basis for a light evening’s entertainment. But this is David Eldridge’s dramatisation based on the Dogme film. And despite being interspersed with jolly celebratory Danish songs with a couple of congas thrown in for good measure, there is little joy in proceedings.
As the evening unravels, we see the true colours of all the family members. Christian, the eldest brother, was played by Chris Dangerfield with intensity and poise. We see the angst that is about to ignite the evening into a familial conflagration, but he plays the part with sufficient skill as to generally not allow us to anticipate the bombshell exposing his father’s sexual abuse that he is about to drop. The cast as a whole is certainly strong enough to carry the taut drama, although I sometimes felt that the pauses were not sufficiently charged, which led at times to a slowing of the pace where I think the director was trying to achieve more an atmosphere of suspense.
The piece has a huge collection of characters for such a short running time, displaying early characteristics of the Monsterist theatre movement of which Eldridge is a leading light. One of the arguments of this is that new writing shouldn’t be constrained by feeling duty bound to reveal each character’s every layer in detail…backing this up with the idea that where would Macbeth be without the porter, Hamlet without the gravedigger etc. However I felt that this slight glossing over of characterisation didn’t help the actors, which left me a little uncertain as to everyone’s particular role in events.
There were some lovely displays of geriatric curmudgeon from Peter Milner and Donald Roy playing Poul and the Grandfather, but I would have liked to see more depth from some of the servants. The younger brother, Michael, played menacingly by Chris Herriot held the stage to great effect, but as a rule I rarely got a sense of any real connection between the characters. I realise that the piece is completely devoid of sentimentality and I wasn’t expecting a Waltons Mountain scenario, but this disconnection left me feeling that it wasn’t quite the work of an ensemble. Maybe that’s a short coming of the play, each character in isolation from the rest.
The one time I really felt this connection was in a fantastic early scene that splits the staging (designed with appropriate Scandinavian simplicity by Michael Folkard) so that three hotel rooms are depicted with one bed. The focus was never lost despite the actors being literally on top of each other and there was some expert timing from all actors concerned.
Overall however, I felt that the play was competently put across. A production that parades every taboo in the book from incest through suicide to despicable racism needs careful management lest it should degenerate into prurience. The fact that I felt constantly engaged with the story and never felt that I was being subject to self indulgence is a testament to the commitment and generosity of the actors. Festen is a hard hitting play, but with this company I think an audience should feel in safe hands.