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Review: In ‘Festen’ respectability conceals a foul underbelly

The impressive surroundings of the Maths Institute, with its white, glacial interior, works well as a choice of venue for Festen, a Danish drama that revolves around a night in the life of the affluent Hansen family. On walking in, the audience is immersed into the world of these characters who are preparing for a family reunion- in celebration of the resident patriarch daddy Helge’s 60th birthday. Their wealth is indicated by their tasteful clothing-   clean cut suits and sheath dresses proliferate- but this semblance of respectability soon falls away to reveal a foul underbelly.

From the offset, the dysfunctionality of the family is brought the fore. Acts of aggression both passive and overt reign freely, spearheaded by the abrasive youngest son Michael, who spitfires profanity at his wife and the hotel staff. With casual jokes about rapists, and play fighting between siblings that hints at incest, the audience is immediately unsettled by the dinner table conversation of this family.  Our discomfort is heightened by the mirth with which family members respond to such jokes. There is a lovely turn from Barbara Denton as a demented grandmother as she competes with the sycophantic assistant Helmut (Ian Nutt) to reach a fever pitch of absurdity.  We audience members collude in the cheeriness of this situation by laughing. We begin to question our own amusement, however, when seemingly absurd jokes we chuckled at metamorphosise into something more sinister. The strangeness of this jolly atmosphere is emphasised when we are informed that one of Helge’s daughters, Linda, has recently committed suicide.  We begin to see that this is a family trapped in chronic denial.

The play centres around the astonishing speech that Helge’s eldest son Christian, gives at the birthday meal.  Though his family are expecting to hear words that celebrate his father- Christian instead reveals that he and his late sister were repeatedly raped by their father in their childhood.  A speech that began as a whimsical anecdote on fatherly love, develops into a harrowing account of child abuse. Our laughter is turned on its head. Rob Cole is believable as a survivor speaking out about the abuse he suffered- he does this part justice in his nuanced acting of a man in the process of break down. Unfortunately all present- family members and friends- either respond with silence or out right deny what Christian has said. This behaviour is all the more shocking when we find out that Christian’s mother, Else, was witness to this sexual abuse. As an understated Helge, Tom Hare Duke maintains his tyranny through silence and platitudes. This controlled depiction of a reprehensible character complicates our understanding of what monstrosity is, and how it looks. We see him, at first, looking  ordinary in tweed, and being hospitable to his guests. Though clearly this family are wrong to treat Christian in the way that they do, you have some insight into why they do, and into the emotional manipulation all of them have endured. When his veneer of decency is cracked, and his anger breaks through, it’s all the more shocking.

This family, initially so mired in a sense of their righteousness are all responsible for the abuse, and their denial of it. No one is exculpated.

Helene (Tracey Rimell), Helge’s only living daughter, is also meant to be suffering from her own mental breakdown, although this wasn’t always evident. One gratuitous moment where Helene smashes a delicious looking birthday cake- an attempt to show her emotional turmoil-  becomes instead quite a comical gesture, which undermines the tension. The three do convince as siblings, and create a good sense of intimacy. You really feel the sense of inferiority their parents have imposed upon them. As Michael, Simon Bellamy captures his petulant rage well, though it would have been nice to see some more variation on his anger, effective though it is for the most part- although his tenderness in the final scene is touching. Some minor cast members are less convincing in their roles- not quite getting the intonation right; meaning crucial scenes can feel flat in places. For the most part though, this ensembles nails the unsettling farce done so well in the original 1998 Danish film.

At the very beginning, Helene says ‘there have always been ghosts in this house’, and the sentiment of characters being haunted by their pasts reverberates through. This family, initially so mired in a sense of their righteousness are all responsible for the abuse, and their denial of it. No one is exculpated. And yet, in this production, the attribution of guilt becomes a bit confusing. All family members are implicated, as they choose to expel their father rather than closely examining and apologising for their collusion. Thus the mother, Else, played chillingly by Cathy Oakes, is allowed to remain with the family, despite her vile speechifying. We are not left with a comforting note of redemption, especially since these same characters pelt Helene’s

Indian boyfriend Gbatokai (Arun Joseph) with racist abuse, and never openly question their own attitudes. This desire to whitewash in their family is repeated in the motif of cleanliness- Christian states that ‘my father is a clean man’, We see his children nervously rearranging the dinner table, as if to make it perfect. At the end, we see the debris cleared away by guests and servants, the food smashed and smeared on the table. This return to the immaculate cleanliness of the beginning hints that the family hasn’t quite gotten over their father’s legacy of needing to appear spotless.

Festen is a play that, at its heart, shows the tragedy of the family- one that would deny unpleasant secrets rather than acknowledge them. It explores the consequences of the denial of sexual abuse, and the effects on the lives of its victims and their families. In light of recent expositions of prominent sexual abusers in positions of power, such a work is highly relevant and important. It has a responsibility to be sensitive and demonstrate the appalling consequences of sexual abuse, as well as forcing its audiences to actively think about their response to accusations and testimony by survivors. This adaptation treats its material with the respect and commitment that it demands. It is a testament to the acting of the ensemble that they achieve this- and meticulous attention to detail has made this an impressive production.

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