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STA!’s Festen: the Bitter Taste of a Family Dinner

A Play Review

By REBECCA TOOK

A silent, complicit mother. A tight-lipped patriarch. A bawdy brother and a bereaved twin. One daughter’s dead and the other – shock horror – is a socialist. Directed by Jolijn Wendel, and adapted from the script by David Eldridge, Festen is based on Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish black comedy/drama film.

Actors of the play perform / Courtesy of the Amsterdammer

A dysfunctional family gathers together for an elaborate formal dinner, to celebrate their businessman father’s sixtieth birthday. However, the reunion of siblings Christian, Michael and Helene is overshadowed by the absence of Christian’s twin sister Linda, who recently died by suicide. Played by a disembodied voice-over, Linda’s ghostly presence seems to shadow and steer her twin.

While the birthday is a landmark, the dinner is an annual celebration, with each year becoming more ritual than a party. There is an expectation of flattering speeches, repeated stories and traditions upheld. But when Christian presents his father with a choice between two speeches, one written on yellow paper, the other green, the illusion of upper-class civility is exploded.

The father’s choice – and choices – ignite a series of deeply unsavoury revelations which should be shocking enough to put everyone off their dessert. But instead, the party continues eating. The refusal to acknowledge these revelations which should rupture their family is at first baffling, and then becomes ludicrous.

The family’s willing blindness is not only uncomfortable for the audience, but at times becomes viscerally upsetting. However, moments of absurd brevity – largely provided by the German family friends, played by Ann Sophie Honikel and Remo Bos – provided comic relief which at times literally made me cry with laughter.

“Festen plays with this conflict of farce and trauma, at times confusing the boundaries between darkness and comedy, yet the frustration of the family’s repressive silence, or silencing, is hard to overcome. It is less the pain of what is left unsaid, and more the agony of what is said and ignored.”

Barring Christian – played by Thijs Veltman – the family are largely unsympathetic, though the script allows little room for him to be much more than one-dimensionally troubled. The same pained expression plagued his face for most of the play, providing an unwelcome emotional anchor which the others rotate around, but cannot fully evade.

No-one, not even the eldest daughter’s ethereal hippy girlfriend Moon, who gratuitously greets everyone with a hazy ‘namaste’, seems to be emotionally literate. At times the family’s levels of repression reaches absurdity, although the youngest son Michael and his fed-up wife Maddy (fervently played by Christian Webb and Roosa Jarvinen) oscillate between screaming obscenities at each other and passionately reconciling.

Despite some genuinely engaging performances, there is a flatness to some of the characters which could perhaps have been more fully developed. But perhaps this emotional estrangement is a more truthful articulation of the boisterous brutality of the upper classes. There is so much happening, and the characters are frankly so unlikeable, that it is hard to know where to lay the blame. Instead, Festen seems to suggest that maybe, some people are fundamentally incompatible with family.

Festen is performed by Student Toneelverening Amsterdam (STA!) at the CREA Theatre from March 20 to 22. For more information: https://www.sta-toneel.nl/producties/festen/

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