When Rufus Norris's stage production of Festen premiered at the Almeida in March, otherwise measured and temperate critics wrote in terms of perfection, revelation, epiphany. Seldom was the term "rave reviews" embodied so literally. And deservedly so: Norris and adaptor David Eldridge had taken Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme film and translated it into a dramatic experience which maintained the spirit of sparsity and minimalism underpinning the Dogme school's manifesto, yet also created an electrifyingly theatrical fabric of both narrative and atmosphere.
The show's transfer to the West End raises two questions. The first is how has the staging coped with the transition from a comparatively intimate off-West End space (capacity 320) without a "fourth wall" to a 900-seat proscenium-arch venue such as the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue? The second is rather more vague and complex, and concerns how easily a dark piece such as this will sit in the current West End. After all, before the summer even relatively upbeat shows were closing after as little as four weeks; the big autumn hopes for reviving Theatreland's fortunes rest on a trio of musicals, The Woman In White, The Producers and Mary Poppins, all some way away from an adaptation of a Danish film about child sexual abuse, bourgeois family unpleasantness and flaws in the social fabric itself.
First, the staging. Yes, it still works. Ian McNeil's design, centred on a long dinner table at which the family and associates of hotelier/restaurateur Helge gather to celebrate his 60th birthday, always seemed to create a semi-detached, not quite real space. Consequently, the pros arch here doesn't attenuate the emotional impact when Helge's son Christian, proposing a toast, claims that his father used to rape him and his now-dead twin sister when they were young. It's the various forms of denial, incredulity and confrontation through the night of the party that supply the stark drive of the piece: grotesque moments such as the family bursting blithely into a song about "Sambo" before the surviving daughter's African boyfriend, or a birthday conga snaking through the house as other characters contemplate how to deal with the belated discovery of a suicide note.
Luke Mably, replacing Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Christian, has a little of the uncertainty of a screen actor inexperienced on the stage; however, he gets close enough to the ideal understated, matter-of-fact register necessary. As Christian's feckless, violent brother Michael, Rory Kinnear consolidates his reputation as a hot property for stage casting directors, after a brace of fine comic turns for the RSC and a strong Laertes for Trevor Nunn at the Old Vic. Stephen Moore is a masterly piece of casting as Helge, whose repression and callousness are all the more unsettling for being delivered in Moore's essentially reasonable half-whisper.
As for the play's prospects in a milieu of West End tinsel, I think the fears are overstated. The quota of serious stuff is well up to scratch. Uppermost on the current menu are plays about wars ancient and modern, led by David Hare's Stuff Happens at the National and Frank McGuinness's electrifying new version of Euripides' Hecuba at the Donmar, but also including the quiet success of WW1 play Journey's End, still running solidly after nine months. However, what looks like fluff can be deceptive: next door but one to Festen is the surprisingly harrowing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. What gets overlooked amid the doom-mongering is that all those premature spring closures were merely so-so shows: quality will out, and Festen will get the audience it deserves.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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