Review: Festen

Play Dead Theatre brings Festen to the lavish Ripponlea Estate 

By Leeor Adar

The Danes sure know how to put on a family affair… from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to David Eldridge’s take on the Danish film ‘The Celebration’, in Festen, the audience must once again question whether the prized son is a raving lunatic or a man on a quest for truth.

The production of Festen is performed in the ballroom of the heritage listed Ripponlea Estate, which is an astonishingly fabulous choice of venue. The gorgeous interiors are surely a treat for Set Designer Diane Jouvet, and Costume Designer Helene Marie Froisland matching luxe against luxe. Festen is a feast for the eyes, and I am admittedly easily absorbed into the grandeur of this world.

On the 60th birthday of patriarch, Helge (Adrian Mulraney), his family find themselves reunited in his grand home for the first time since the evident suicide of one of his daughters, Linda. The opening scene begins with valets rushing about in preparation for a family feast, and it is quickly established that the arrival of one of Helge’s sons, Michael (producer Michael Mack), is unwelcome. Michael is flanked by his beautiful wife Mette (Hester Van Der Vyver) and their young daughter (Isobel Henry), and quickly establishes himself as a brute without cause. Greeted by Linda’s living twin, Christian (Mark Yeates), it is apparent that the siblings are of a starkly contrasting disposition. After the arrival of middle sister Helene (Aimee Sanderson), it is obvious Christian is favoured by his father above the others, but it is soon revealed over the course of the dinner, that it came with a dark and harrowing price.

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Grappling with tragi-comedy is nothing new for Director Jennifer Sarah Dean, an award winning writer and theatre director, and her capacity to direct thoroughly entertaining theatre has become her trademark. Her direction here is excellent in her use of space, and the effortless interactions between the cast as they fill up the space, each living out their own experience of the evening’s events. I found the ebbs and flows of the quiet reserve of the dining table marvellously contrasted with the sudden ruptures in the peace. It feels utterly real for the audience, who are spectators to the disintegration of the family, and all the embarrassment and cruelty that it entails.

Overall the cast are excellent. Yeates’ Christian is quiet and subtle and all at once burning with what he wants to reveal. This contrasts so well with the stern and unrelenting performance of Mulraney as the patriarch. At first far too shrill and false, Sanderson’s Helene is soon revealed like her brother Michael to be crushed under the weight of their parents’ gaze, and the moment where she reads Linda’s letter to the dinner table was quietly poignant and heartbreaking. Tori McCann’s Pia, a maid to the family, and lover of Christian, is excellent in her supporting role, anchoring the indifference of the family with her genuine care. The remainder of the supporting cast offer great humour, including Richard Moss as the drunken and forgetful Grandfather, Jonathan Peck as Helmut, the wannabe son of Helge, Tref Gare as Poul, who mingles depressive and joker expertly, Victory Ndukwe as Helene’s boyfriend Gbatokai, who stirs the racist ugliness of his lover’s clan, and Liam Seymour as Kim the chef, who urges Christian on in his battle for transparency.

Despite the dark and murky waters Festen journeys through, its ending leaves a feeling of emptiness, that nothing was truly achieved by all the truths it reveals about the humanity of its characters. In the effort not to reveal the ending, I felt that the family sitting for breakfast the following morning after the night’s events was not so much an exercise in healing, but rather the final nail in the coffin of the burial of the truth. While the truth is acknowledged, this cold family do what only feels natural to them – to forget. They forget the abuses, the easy racism, sexism and classicism, and carry on. In this way, Eldridge’s play is a critique of this particular kind of family. They are satirised and both admired and derided by viewers, but we all secretly love the dinner parties and the gowns, no matter how rotten the interior.

Overall, Play Dead Theatre’s Festen is an admirable effort of a production – however I can’t shake off the feeling of hollowness… perhaps that’s just how good it is.

You can stroll through the Ripponlea Estate to see Festen until the 22 July. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=380810& and you can read up on Play Dead Theatre here: http://www.playdeadtheatre.com.au/

Photographs: Sarah Walker

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