Red Phoenix Theatre
Holden Street Theatres
Until 04 Jun 2022

Review by George Jankovic

When I opened the program for “Festen” (“The Celebration”), I was very sorry to see the answer to its mystery spoiled in a very overt manner.

You would probably have guessed what it is before walking into Holden Street Theatres anyway, thanks to the marketing, and in fairness, it could be overwhelming if some audience members are caught off guard, especially as the play treats its serious subject matter – to my bafflement – as material for dark comedy. Yes, revealing the ‘twist’ was the responsible thing to do, but some of its intended effect is lost as a consequence. I sincerely recommend reading the program after the show, not before it, if you want to understand why the original film version shocked cinephiles in 1998.

“Festen” opens in the home of a bourgeois Danish family, where a motley assortment of relatives and friends have gathered for the birthday of its ageing patriarch, Helge, played by the stern, resolute Adrian Barnes. We are introduced to his progeny; sensible daughter Helene (Claire Keen), fiery son Michael (Nigel Tripodi), and his brother, Christian, played by Brant Eustice, an actor who can paint a picture worth a thousand words with as little as a sidelong glance.

At the titular celebration, something shocking happens, and that’s all you should know before booking a ticket. The ideal punter would know even less. But of course, if you’re reading this before having watched the play, you’re probably interested in its technical elements, in its craft, gimmicks aside. In this respect, “Festen” certainly has its ebbs and flows.

Like I mentioned, there are standout performances – additionally, Geoff Revell as the bumbling Uncle Poul is a treat. But sometimes you get the impression everyone is sharing the stage in completely different plays. No one is quite sure what “Festen” is meant to be – serious family drama, twisted tragicomedy, or something in-between. The temptation for uncertain actors is usually to overcompensate; it might have been opening night nerves, but there was quite a bit of very obvious, in-yer-face, capital-A grade Acting on display, where a more nuanced, quiet take could have done justice to the gravity of the subject matter.

David Eldridge’s adaptation of auteur Thomas Vinterberg’s film is a tough nut to crack. Director Nick Fagan’s recent productions with the Theatre Guild, “Jerusalem” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, were magical. This one doesn’t quite reach those heights. But in his Director’s Notes, he exalts the virtues of a “gritty, edgy and ultimately risky theatre... the type of theatre I feel we simply don’t get to see enough of in Adelaide.”

Hats off to that. What’s the alternative? At least one can’t say of “Festen”: “It’s been done.”

DISCLAIMER: George Jankovic is a member of the Adelaide University Theatre Guild’s Board of Management.