Festen - photo by Sarah WalkerHuman history suggests that the seriously wealthy can live by their own rules. They may indulge in flaunting money whilst feeding their vanity, or something altogether more shady. Festen, by English playwright David Eldridge, gives us the latter wrapped in the former.

The play, first performed in 2004, is an adaptation of the 1998 Danish “Dogme” film, known also as The Celebration. This references the 60th birthday of Helge (Adrian Mulraney) – a grand and extended dinner party held at the family mansion, requiring various staff.

The restaurant business has made Helge and Else (Rosie Traynor) very comfortable. Their sons, Michael (Michael Mack) and Christian (Mark Yeates), have followed Helge’s example, running eateries in Copenhagen and Paris, respectively.

In advance of the party, Christian is joined at the family home by Michael, who’s quick to show hostility towards Mette (Hester Van Der Vyver), new butler Lars (Charlie Ranger), and newly arrived sister Helene (Aimee Sanderson). The absent sibling is Linda, Christian’s twin, who recently committed suicide.

Putting that aside – well not Christian so much judging by his flat demeanour – there’s guests to accommodate and a party to dress for, revealing aspects of personalities and relationships. Then, there’s birthday traditions to uphold, and speeches to make before Helge’s gathered friends and relations.

As the eldest progeny, during the opening course (and around the play’s 40-minute mark) Christian is the first to offer recollections. Whilst these were initially ignored, they would prove to disrupt the dinner far more than a fly in the bisque could.

This is only because, having made his revelations, Christian is dissuaded from leaving by the cook, also his childhood confidante and secret ally, Kim (Liam Seymour in an effectively no-nonsense cameo)Christian’s continuing presence eventually forces some self-inspection of partygoers amongst the drinking, cavorting, and episodes of vigorous conflict.

The success of any storytelling depends on how much the listener is drawn into the tale. At times I wasn’t convinced by what I was seeing or hearing. Some of this may relate to the 20-year-old script, which had some needless repetition.

Some behaviour, especially that of Michael and (for different reasons) Helge, was quite extreme. We were given no explanation for this, or even a basis on which to theorise. Some of the exposition, such as on Michael and Mette’s relationship, was hard to swallow given the former’s earlier behaviour. However, credibility was also strained by some curious choices made by the production.

It might be that this Festen was trying too hard for regular pops over the 90 minutes rather than building towards a big bang. For example, Helene’s boyfriend and late arrival Gbatokai (Victory Ndukwe) seemed far too keen to get involved in a family matter he knew little about.

Whilst we might expect tensions to rise amidst provocations, or as accusations and denials were made, and further details exposed, the frequent flashpoints fizzled out incomprehensively. Aside from one notable late exception, the portrayal of physical violence was not so believable, looking more like schoolboy shoving than anything having intent to suit the dialogue.

As too much violence too early would suggest that some characters couldn’t survive to the final scenes, credibility might be enhanced here by moderating some of the hyper-reactive performances.

The production aimed to be “… a riveting fusion of a gripping thriller and riotous humour of the darkest kind”. The thriller part wasn’t helped by the plodding pacing and slow scene changes, and we only flirted with dark humour.

In this ensemble piece, many roles were small, and most female ones quite slight. Yet some performances achieved more than looks of concern. Yeates was believable as a man balancing the need to speak about childhood memories against fear of repercussions.

As Helge’s long-time and skittish friend Poul, Tref Gare deftly handled some comic relief. Servants Pia (Tori McCann) and Lars (Charlie Ranger) achieved a good contrast between the long-time staff member invested in the family and the new arrival keen to maintain a professional front.

I’ve seen Festen described as a play about the hypocrisy of a rich family. The better aspects of this production suggest it could have a broader reach than that. The story gives a view of what the powerful can do to the powerless, and how the silence of others might enable this if it suits their own interests.

Rippon Lea Ballroom, 192 Hotham Street, Elsternwick
Performance: Friday 6 July 2018
Season continues to 22 July
Information and Bookings: www.playdeadtheatre.com.au

Image: FESTEN – photo by Sarah Walker

Review: Jason Whyte