The revelations erupt one after another in the English-language stage premiere of “Festen,” accompanied by the normally civilizing sound of cutlery being clinked against a glass. Silence falls, one or another family member rises from the long table at which they are gathered to celebrate the 60th birthday of moneyed patriarch Helge (Robert Pugh), and out comes a potpourri of long-held grievances that could scarcely be more grim: abuse, both sexual and racial, rape, incest and often the whole kaboodle at once. If you thought the festivities quickly curdled in “Dinner,” London’s other play of late to treat an upmarket fete as an excuse for so many hand grenades, “Festen” takes the proverbial cake, and one’s only wish is that auds could take the show as seriously as it clearly takes itself.
On the evidence of the matinee perf caught, I’m not entirely convinced. Few would dispute the spell cast by Rufus Norris’ adroit Almeida staging, which, if anything, could amplify still further the hallucinatory landscape in which this oh-so-Scandinavian drama unfolds. (As it is, “Festen” is considerably less disturbing than, say, “The Pillowman,” though sound designer Paul Arditti is equally invaluable to both productions.) But notwithstanding the commitment of a large cast who enter fully into the play’s bilious, largely repellent spirit, you have to question one character’s eleventh-hour assertion, “I’m sure we are all deeply moved.” Not necessarily.
On the one hand, you have to admire the decision to transpose to the stage as scabrous a source as “Festen” (Celebration), the 1998 Thomas Vinterberg film that remains a prime example of the Dogma 1995 movement most famously associated with Lars von Trier. (A separate Polish theater version of the movie visited London several years ago.) “Hairspray” this certainly is not, and even Stephen Sondheim hasn’t approached the inferno of taboos that course through “Festen,” rising almost unbidden from the characters with the same ease with which beds and other objects mysteriously appear and then vanish from Ian MacNeil’s deceptively bare stage.
At the same time, “Festen” — an alternative title could well be “Fester” — isn’t O’Neill, either. Rather than plumbing the vitriol to which this clan is quick to give accusatory voice, David Eldridge’s adaptation seems content merely to announce a “sick mind” or “twisted spirit” and leave it at that, leavening events with a facetiousness — the mood, one character remarks, isn’t helping his depression (!) — that compel a spectator to laugh at the emotional spectacle on view rather than with it.
It’s possible that the reined-in British psyche may be particularly drawn to the blunt style of the piece, which juxtaposes good manners and fine breeding with the sort of sudden ferocity that won’t be unknown to anyone who has struggled through Leicester Square on a Friday night. You smile as Jane Asher, a lovely actress, finally gets her wifely turn to make a toast in the second act, only to put a well-heeled boot into everyone concerned. But playing her younger, thuggish son, Michael, a tattooed Tom Hardy, late of the Royal Court’s comparably incestuous “Blood,” swaggers about as if his bare-chested, hyped-up animalism were meant to be sexy; repulsive is more like it, especially when he lets rip at sister Helene’s (Claire Rushbrook) black boyfriend, Gbatokai (a likable Patrick Robinson): Michael’s venom had the Islingtonians gasping audibly right on cue.
The material works best when it goes somewhat against the gloom, which includes the suicide not long previously of Christian’s beloved twin, Linda, whose “infectious laugh” haunts the action like something out of Henry James.
Playing a grandfather who obviously revels in the dirt he has to tell, Sam Beazley brings a welcome glint to his desire to let spill words that “won’t be anything for the ears of small children.” Rushbrook, in turn, lends an energizing wit to a fury that proves the match of both her brothers, even if her way is to explode into an aria of crockery-smashing rage while Miller’s wounded Christian is seen to implode before our eyes. “Welcome to this curious birthday party,” says Christian, deadpan, but “curious” barely begins to describe a play that seems literally intoxicated by its own power — but left this critic cold.