The tipple of choice at Helge Klingenfeldt-Hansen’s 60th birthday party is a glass of bitters. Appropriate indeed for an evening that reveals a walk-in wardrobe’s worth of closeted skeletons.
Festen, originally a film by Thomas Venterberg and Mogens Rukov but previously seen onstage courtesy of David Elridge’s 2004 adaptation, remains a grippingly ambiguous story. Following the suicide of his twin sister Linda, the adult Christian confronts his father over the sexual abuse that marked their childhood. Its trick is that Helge’s guilt is only absolutely confirmed at the end when Linda’s suicide note is inadvertently read-out as a dinner-table speech. Until then, you can’t be sure that Christian’s insistent attempt at armour-piercing isn’t a warped joke or a childish provocation.
Vlad Massaci’s production for Bucharest’s Nottara Theatre presents the event naturalistically, which leaves those not blessed with fluent Romanian at a massive disadvantage. This is a work that requires close attention. With the family sat around a long dining table (Massaci has cut the more private scenes elsewhere in the house), we need to spot how accusations land with different onlookers. Who’s embarrassed? Who’s confused? Who’s shocked? Who’s ashamed? In short, the game is in searching for clues as to who knows what and what’s let slip.
To do so, one needs to look microscopically, which the need to constantly refer to the (awkwardly positioned and sometimes out-of-sync) surtitles almost entirely scuppers. What we see is doubly disaligned and we can only play ineffective detective.
Problematic though this is, it cannot be held against the production itself only its current circumstances. By placing us so close to the action – we are more or less the dining room’s walls – Massaci forces us to play zoom lense, splitting our attention onto individuals rather than the overall panorama. Nonetheless, the play’s embers desperately need stoking to make a furnace of the festivities. It has all the motions of intensity, but none of the corresponding effects.
Massaci wants the play to chime as an examination of the state. ‘The Klingenfeld-Hansen family is the very society we live in today,’ he writes in the programme, ‘One that rejects dealing with recent history, and consequently looks hideous.’ He lines the back wall with wire animal skulls and dresses Alexandru Repan’s bulbous Helge in ostentatious white-tie, as if nodding to fashionista autocrats. When he is finally thrown, blood-stained, onto the table, it calls to mind the captured Muammar Gadaffi, dying on the bonnet of a jeep. His son Michael then attempts to urinate on him.
Repan’s Helge orchestrates the party like a military parade, dishing out prescribed roles to his children and demanding that proceedings run to plan. Chairs must be perfectly aligned; glasses, spotlessly clean. These are the traces of propaganda – a fact drawn out by Massaci’s use of a video camera to catch private moments and a microphone for the public speeches. It is key that neither Christian’s accusations nor Linda’s suicide note are amplified.
In these terms, Festen becomes a usurpation and Massaci has Christian take his father’s chair for breakfast the next day. Helge and his wife excepted, all still wear dinner dress. The ambiguity, then, is whether the cycle will repeat. After all, both Christian and his brother Michael have followed their father into the restaurant trade, albeit overseas, and the best (slightly awkward) praise that can be found for Helene is that she has followed her own path. Just as children struggle to throw off ingrained aspirations from childhood lifestyles, so too the establishment survives through a cycle of self-replication.
If watching Festen in English might not reach its fullest potential as an experience, Massaci’s delicate and crisply intelligent interpretation nonetheless leaves plenty to chew over.