Red Phoenix Theatre. Holden Street Theatres. 27 May 2022
If ever there was a difficult and challenging play to mount on the contemporary stage, Festen is it.
It derives from a renowned Danish Dogme 95 film directed by Thomas Vinterberg and transposed for English stage by David Eldridge.
Impressions of that film had so imprinted on the memory of Red Phoenix director Nick Fagan that this theatre adaptation was irresistible albeit, oh, such a logistical mountain.
It involves a cast of 15 actors and a very nimble production crew.
And then there is the subject matter which strikes through the facade of happy families’ right into the heart of their sad and sly secrets.
This play balances jovial superficiality with dark mutilations of the human spirit. Piece by piece, around the celebrations for the family patriarch’s 70th birthday, the past unravels. But, this is not a dark and gloomy play at all. It is a wild ride. Families are odd beasts. They are made up of love and acrimony, old grudges, rituals, rivalries, eccentricities, outsiders and insiders, all of them bonded by blood, however outrageous. Whatever the sin, you can’t “un” family.
In its style and characters the play and its production sing the filmic idiosyncrasies of its Danish origin, to which end, director Nick Fagan has cast it superbly.
There are some award-worthy performances in the mix, among them and not surprisingly, the ever-consummate Brant Eustice as the very angry older brother, Christian, a surviving twin looking to out a few home truths. For Adrian Barnes, this may just be a career zenith. He carries the core of the play with a calculated restraint which brilliantly underscores the complexity and culpability of his character, Helge the patriarch. Talking of restraint, Lyn Wilson most expertly portrays his passive but ultimately hostile wife.
There are so many crucial characters and so many fine performances. Joh Hartog delights and amuses with the impeccable physicality of his performance as the old grandad. It is hard not to watch him all the time he is on stage. But the competition is fierce. Lovely reactive vignettes draw the eye all the time among these many odd bods.
There’s that obnoxious brother, Michael, played to a strident tee by Nigel Tripodi. The audience is left agape when he shows his character's true colours in front of his sister’s African lover, played with such artful balance by Stephen Tongan.
There are layers to every character, even neurotic old uncle Poul who is quite perfectly embodied by the divine Geoff Revell.
The praise can go on since, as the characters line up at the party tables and dance through the rooms, they are growing upon one. They arise to be the collective everyman of dysfunctional families and in some way, they become our own.
Gary George, Georgia Stockham, Claire Keen, Russel Slater, with Cheryl Douglas and the director standing in for Stuart Pearce - all are strong players in this work.
And then there is Sienna Fagan, the child actor playing the granddaughter. She’s the director’s daughter and in thorough program notes he explains her suitability for a role in this high drama of controversial subject matter. She does him proud. Her presence is extremely significant in the play and her aptitude for the stage shines forth. Brava.
Other production facets of course complete the effectiveness of this massive work: lighting, sets, sound, and costumes.
Pat H Wilson is music supervisor and the music choices underscore, quite literally, the themes of the play serving as yet another feather in the cap of this astounding must-see production.
When: 27 May to 4 Jun
Where: Holden Street Theatres