Film-makers usually steal their stories from the theatre, not the other way around. Adapted from the award-winning Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg, Festen is a remarkable play about a wealthy hotelier exposed at his 60th birthday as a child-molester.
With his suicidal daughter just buried, Helge’s family and friends gather at his mansion for what becomes a showdown birthday dinner. Funny little family rituals and party games are re-enacted, wine-glasses tapped and speeches called for. Helge’s son Christian finally stands. He speaks to the death of his twin sister, then raises his glass to the man, to the father, who serially raped them both as children.
Gay readers will be familiar with the sort of denial which then sweeps around that ornate table, from Christian’s remaining sister, his explosive brother and his porcelain-featured mother. One knew, one suspected, but all deny the dark family secret. Christian is bashed and bloodied by the time dessert is served, but by then a letter from the dead confirms his truth. Breakfast the next day is inexplicably formal and restrained, yet the daylight brings some redemption, even images of the Last Supper.
This gothic tale is well served by Brian Thomson’s dark box set, with long curtained windows and its huge wooden doors. This and the banquet setting for most of the play bring regal echoes of Hamlet and his own exposure of what was rotten about another Danish family. Director Gale Edwards, working with David Eldridge’s adaptation for the London stage, rises to the challenge of spotlighting the role of each of the 14 characters in the plot -“ and the dark revelation. In the chilling pace a few characters though are blurred, like the imaginative part the servants play to engineer the showdown.
Edwards is aided by an exceptional cast with, among others, standout performances from John Stanton and Angela Punch McGregor as the parents, Frank Whitten as Helge’s strangely depressive brother and Ron Haddrick as the obscene old grandfather. Tom Long as Christian and Jeremy Sims as his renegade brother are also good. All the characters, along with the racism which greets a black visitor, depict a brutal culture and a family past that help to explain why this abuse happened. The fault of the play is that Helge’s motivations remain a gothic mystery. But the revelation of the abuse and its impact make brilliantly uncomfortable theatre. Christmas Day speeches in my family will never be the same.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of Festen is at the Drama Theatre until 17 December.