The New Venture Theatre has outdone itself by producing this excellent production of Festen, David Eldridge’s adaptation of the classic Dogme Film. The casting and acting is generally superb, the set is subtle yet evocative, yet small details jar and mar the experience of the production, which is a shame. However, the final piece is more than watchable, intense and enjoyable, and recommendable.
Festen is an incredible play, and a gigantic leap for the New Venture Theatre. For an amateur company and venue, known for their easy fare, this play marks a huge step forward, a willingness to perform edgy, exciting writing, which their excellent theatre space simply screams for. A commendable and bold choice, and one that certainly pays off, as this production shatters the New Venture’s reputation as amateur and easy, and sets the stage for a bright future.
The play itself presents a difficult story: a Danish family convenes for the patriarch’s birthday, just after the suicide of his oldest daughter. A plethora of characters are introduced, and the party begins, but shocking developments raise the tension as this curious party becomes more and more difficult to watch.
This difficult story is presented excellently by the majority of the cast: There are stand-out performances from Bob Gilchrist as Helge, the family patriarch, and from Matthew Lawson as his lout of a son, Michael. Lawson, in particular, impressed with a heartfelt, funny, and boisterous performance. Matthew Haughton’s Christian was a little too benign, but shared some excellent moments with Gilchrist: the tension in their scenes crackled fantastically. The rest of the cast performed ably, but there was a distinct variance in skill. In a play so taut with reaction, with huge dinner scenes in which most of the actors do not speak, it would have been great to see more involvement from some of the smaller parts. That being said, some of the smaller parts were truly stellar, filled to the brim with character and extremely well acted: Colin Elmer as Lars, Caron McNish as Mette, and Emma Cunliffe as Pia are definitely ones to look out for.
The production itself is more than accomplished. Festen is full of difficult little scenes, lines that sound and feel unnatural, but the production rolled through them well and made them comprehensible. The set was nicely constructed, and well arranged throughout the piece by the hired help (a nice touch), but took far too long to do. The songs were nicely arranged and sung, as were the potentially complicated ‘party’ moments, including a daisy-chain that winds in and out of the performance space. The physical violence later in the piece was choreographed excellently, although some rather nasty kicks and punches didn’t seem to leave any sort of mark or scar or blood, which lessened their impact. Generally, the standard of work and direction was high.
However, my biggest critique of the production is in its direction. Firstly, the staging is very New Venture Theatre: I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a performance in the space and someone has walked to the front corner and turned to face their co-actors and turned their back on the audience. It’s always dangerous when a venue or company becomes known for a certain move or placement on stage: this really should be avoided. Also, the programme states that the company tried to “…maintain the spirit of sparsity and minimalism underpinning the manifesto”, and while the production was sparse and minimal, and beautiful for it, it was also heavily theatrical and horribly un-Dogme. Scenes like the three way scene, all happening around the same set, but in different rooms, were outstanding: the movements did not feel staged, and this befitted the Dogme tradition: entertainment performed without masses of effects, lights, etc. Why then, at the end, there was a dream sequence with a rippling blue light is beyond me. In the same fashion, why the long restaging moments were underpinned with music that reeked of pathos is also, completely beyond me. The music was particularly galling, as it also sanitised the plot and the themes, turning them into a Hollywood or fairy-tale moment: a huge misstep, especially considering that they had some great songs that could have been hummed or whistled live, by the hired help, or something a little less theatrical.
In general, I enjoyed this production, as I adore the play, and I would recommend it to any Fringe-theatre-goer. It is a grand new step for the New Venture, extremely well acted, although a tad over-directed. It’s on for a couple of weeks, so use the opportunity and head there now!