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Festen, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London Review

We are thrilled you ended up in anthropology although we had hoped for law
--- Else
Michael Thomas as Helmut, Jonny Lee Miller as Christian and Tom Hardy as Michael
(Photo: John Haynes)
Festen, as a Dogme film, premiered in 1997 and won critical acclaim and many film prizes. Dogme films originated in Denmark in the mid 1990s and are a genre of cult films which are subject to certain rules. The filming is on hand held cameras and has a rough and gritty feel to the finished product. There are rules about locations only using pre-existing venues and often the actors wear their own clothes. Some of the dialogue is improvised, no sound editing is allowed or addition of music. Here, to give you a flavour of the movement. is the vow (taken from their website) which Dogme directors take: "Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a work, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations."

So this is the film on which author David Eldridge has based his stage play for London's innovative Islington theatre, the Almeida. With the talented Rufus Norris at the director's helm and Jonny Lee Miller taking the lead role, Festen completely fulfils its theatrical promise. It is undoubtedly the direction which is outstanding. Somehow Norris manages for his players to convey their character's personality in delightful and studied detail. Take Tom Hardy, as Michael, the temperamental younger son. Hardy constantly twitches and fidgets throughout his scenes, his attention deficit personality never lets up even though he may not be the centre of that scene's action. Norris' elegant production is much more stylised than any Dogme film could be by definition, but the sheer power of the original which has a Greek tragedy feel to it, is retained.

The story is about a family reunion. Siblings Christian (Jonny Lee Miller), Helene (Claire Rushbrooke) and Michael (Tom Hardy) are gathered at their successful father, Helge's (Robert Pugh), family home to celebrate his birthday when the conventional son, Christian makes an accusatory speech which will ensure that the family will never be the same again. Helge denies the accusations and his wife Else (Jane Asher) backs him up refusing to admit what she witnessed in person. Christian's twin sister has committed suicide before the opening of the play. The family is showing signs of dysfunction before Christian's revelation. Michael and his wife Mette (Lisa Palfrey) and daughter (Emily Eastell/Clemmie Hooten/Alice Knight) were not invited to this party after failing to attend the funeral of his sister.

A directorial coup has three separate bedroom scenes playing simultaneously on stage, as we see each of Helge and Else's children settling into their visitor's bedroom with just one bed. It reminded me of the time phased bedroom scene in Honeymoon Suite where the same couple were onstage at three different periods in their life. In Festen this works really well as we are given the opportunity to compare brothers and sister and are given some essential background information about them in a very natural and unforced way. Christian evades the advances of Pia (Ruth Millar), Helene makes a discovery which unsettles her but which she decides to conceal and Michael and Mette and child convince us of what a disorganised and volatile family they are. At mealtimes, the family eat with no conversation, just the noise of the cutlery on the plates and slurping from glasses. There is the directorial isolation of Christian in agony while the other guests raucously sing nursery rhymes and drunkenly conga throughout the house.

Jonny Lee Miller's serious Christian was very well judged, with a depth and sincerity suited to his function in the play. He gives his father a choice about which speech he will make. We the audience were left wondering what could have been in the other speech or was the choice just a device to make Helge feel at ease? In either case, it was an interesting and involving dramatic device. I loved Claire Rushbrooke's solid Helene. More maternal than her mother, the thin, neurotic fashion plate Else, who is very controlled, the voluptuous and kindly Helene is always smoothing out the family creases. I have already mentioned Tom Hardy who won an acting award last year and who has made playing disturbed young men a fine art. Robert Pugh convinces as a thoroughly nasty and menacing patriarch.

There are some very good side roles. Patrick Robinson as Gbatokai, Helene's black boyfriend who is subjected to some crass comments which are funny but also rooted in racism. We are laughing at the ignorance of the racists, not at the intelligent, sophisticated and handsome Gbatokai. Sam Beazley is an idiosyncratic grandfather who has a repertoire of embarrassing jokes about his son. Then there is Poul (Sam Cox), a guest, whose stream of irrelevant, non sequiturs are brilliantly funny, "It was baking in the car on the way here, I took my shirt off and felt like a French rapist". Of course his deadpan delivery is all, as at the height of the family revelations, he panics looking for his car keys oblivious to the crisis unfolding around him. I liked too Christian's old schoolfriend and loyal ally, Kim, Gary Oliver, the chef who admits he can only cook well when drunk.

In an "homage" to Dogme, the designer has ensured that the sets merge or segue, one into another, the bed rises from the floor, the dining table slides on and then off again to seamlessly become the bedroom set.

I have not yet seen the Dogme film which I am assured was very searching and moving. This thoroughly enjoyable production of Festen does not have to compete with the movie as far as I am concerned, although I am now determined to see the original. This is a brilliantly directed play from Rufus Norris and deserves to transfer, if the principals are available.


Written by David Eldridge after the Dogme film by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr Hansen
Directed by Rufus Norris

Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Tom Hardy
With: Lisa Palfrey, Andrew Maud, Claire Rushbrooke, Jane Asher, Robert Pugh, Ruth Millar, Michael Thomas, Sam Beazley, Sam Cox, Gary Oliver, Patrick Robinson, Emily Eastell/Clemmie Hooten/Alice Knight
Designer: Ian MacNeil
Costume Design: Joan Wadge
Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Sound: Paul Arditti
Music: Orlando Gough
Running time: One hour fifty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 1st May 2004.

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th March 2004 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street London N1 (Tube: Angel/Highbury and Islington)
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