I am in awe. I have been teetering on the edge of finally hanging up my reviewer’s pen after 25 years of scribbling in the dark. And then I saw Festen.
This Red Phoenix Theatre production of Festen is everything you wish theatre to be.
It has been exquisitely cast, the director (Nick Fagan) has thoughtfully managed the rhythm and flow of the action, the production team has pulled out all the stops, and the actors are each unrelenting in their focus and presence.
To have 15 actors (occasionally on stage all at once), all disciplined in their craft from the youngest to the oldest, is a hallmark of passionate endeavour by all involved.
In this story, Helge (Adrian Barnes), the patriarch of a chain of restaurants, is to celebrate his 70th birthday, accompanied by his wife Else (Lyn Wilson), two sons, Michael (Nigel Tripodi) and Christian (Brant Eustice), daughter (Claire Keen) and close family friends. The action is set at Helge’s large country estate, with the only person missing being Christian’s twin sister, Linda, who recently committed suicide.
The story has four main movements; the arrival, the personal preparations for the celebratory dinner, the dinner itself with its aftermath, and then the final breakfast the next morning.
In David Eldridge’s adaptation of the original play, there are ripples of discontent from the outset, which gradually eddy and build into waves of shock, violence, and the resetting of relationships.
From the outset, quality of hellos, each with a different style and nuance, betray differences in relationships between the players. Such detail is immaculate and consistent throughout this production. Most notably when Nick Fagan’s daughter, Sienna Fagan (who plays the Little Girl), in engaged in typical daughter/dad business at the long feasting table. It seems that not a stone has been left unturned by this ensemble. Go a second time and watch the characters not speaking, and you will be equally satisfied.
While the build up to the celebratory feast is informative and quite telling, layering our understanding about each character, it is the opening moment of “the feast” when Brant Eustice’s Christian delivers his toast to his dad and drops a bombshell about rape.
The audience is stilled. The characters are stilled. In fact, too much so.
This pivotal moment in the story captures the challenge and frustration of “outing” a perpetrator of child sexual abuse; familiarity with the accused forges denial and disbelief in the minds of those present. It is as if the accuser is suddenly encased with a soundproof fishbowl; expressions and reactions can be seen, but nothing is heard, nothing is said, nobody moves.
The unusual wave pattern of reactions from all present, makes this riveting viewing.
This is not soap opera. This is not stylistic presentation. This is gritty realism, with all the missteps, misunderstandings, and meandering that you’d expect after your familial foundation has been profoundly shaken.
Every performance was exemplary on opening night and, ever so slightly, did some rise above the others to earn special mentions. Nigel Tripodi’s Michael was dangerously explosive; a jagged mirror reflecting the complexity of toxic masculinity. Gary George’s Helmut (the long-serving staff member acting as Master of Ceremonies) was well painted as a torn sycophant doing his best to perform well for his “father” while processing the horrors of what he’s learning about Helge. Stephen Tongun’s Gbatokai weathered the storm of racism hurled towards him by Michael, ultimately uncovering a possibly perverse aspect to Claire Keen’s Helene.
Brant Eustice was at the top of his game in this production; breathing his character as he built up to his outpouring of accusation. His is a smouldering Christian and he remains steadfast in his plight. Likewise, Adrian Barnes goes all in. We watch him steel himself, watch him reach for the twisted puppet strings he uses to manipulate his family, and then we see the gravity of his actions weigh him down.
From young Sienna Fagan’s confident performance as a little girl in a broken family to Joh Hartog’s teetering, elderly Grandfather, this diverse cast of actors create 110 minutes of dense, enjoyable, don’t-look-away theatre.
Sublime music between scenes (Nick Fagan, Sean Smith) polishes the edges of this long banquet table of majestic theatre. And every course is served with the flair you’d expect from the family’s restaurants.
This. Is. Theatre.