Directed by Danielle McIlven
Pros: Space Productions revel in the rapidly fluctuating emotions of the play, keeping the audience consistently on the edge of disgust, laughter, anger and overwhelming sympathy.
Cons: A few brief moments of unconvincing characterisation.
Our Verdict: A highly tense yet enjoyable piece which, for the most part, had me on the edge of my seat.
Taken from the Danish film of the same name (The Celebration in English), Festen is an intense family drama which reveals and explores the depths in which secrets and traumatic memories lurk, obscured from view by outward pretensions of loving and laughing. In the wake of one of his twin sister’s suicide, Christian joins his siblings and family’s friends to celebrate the 60th birthday of their father, Helge. As the party unfolds, its attendants are forced to grasp hard to their festive spirit while Christian battles both his own and the family’s demons. This brings to the fore the hushed up family secrets which lead to Linda’s suicide.
As ever, Space Productions use their venue to its full potential, recognising the creative potential of every nook and cranny in their delightful performance space which, though intimate, was skilfully transformed into a family home. One stroke of brilliance in particular was the use of a single bedroom set up to convey three scenes simultaneously; on and around the same double bed, Christian broods, oblivious to Kim’s attempted seduction while his brother violently makes love to his defeated wife and their sister Helene searches for and discovers a suicide note from Linda. The proximity of the contrasting events to one another is telling of the overbearing claustrophobia of the family’s household. Even living out their own individual stories, they are forced together, unable to escape the familial setting and unhappy memories residing within it. The clever use of space continues as the play moves on to the central party scenes, with the communal bed transforming into the table around which the family are forced to confront their fears and secrets.
While each cast member made valuable contributions to the collapsing family dynamic, the stage was held together by the performance of Ami Stidolph as Helene, the family’s remaining daughter. Torn between believing the accusations of her much-loved brother and clinging to the delusion of the happy family, Helene is a complex role to take on. Stidolph took this in her stride and conveyed every emotion and expression, from determination to fun to the absolute grief of reading her sister’s final words. Rowan Finnegan gave an interesting portrayal of the troubled Christian, coping well with the character’s battle to cease being a victim and to regain control of his life, but couldn’t quite match the stirring performance of his on-stage sibling. Festen is an undoubtedly harrowing performance to watch. It is uncomfortable upsetting and, at times, slightly nauseating. And this is where its biggest strength lies: Festen is unafraid. In borderline sweltering heat, the cast and creative team run headlong at societal taboos without a single flinch, which makes for a fulfilling theatrical experience. The intimate nature of The Space was heightened by characters undressing unashamedly, graphically making love, so that the emotions the character are forced to explore hit the audience square in the face – with such a strong sense of involvement, it is impossible to avoid getting caught up in the whirlwind of drama. While perhaps not one for the sensitive souls, Festen is a gripping piece of theatre. The production closes on the 19th of July so book your tickets, head on down to The Space, and make yourself at home.