In 1995, a group of Danish moviemakers established Dogme 95, a movement designed to strip back what they saw as the over-production of major movies to ensure the focus remained on what truly mattered – the story.
The first of the films produced in the Dogme style was Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. Shot on Handycam, and featuring minimal production design, it received international acclaim – and the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival – thanks to its challenging, confronting themes and a masterful blend of comedy, and tragedy.
It’s easy to see how Festen lends itself to live performance in both style and substance. First adapted by David Eldridge, the show is now playing at Melbourne’s Rippon Lea Estate Ballroom, where production house Play Dead Theatre have staged a powerful, memorable experience.
Here, the theatre’s Creative Director, Michael Mack, and award-winning Director Jennifer Sarah Dean provide the audience with a voyeuristic perspective of a family in denial after a wealthy patriarch’s birthday dinner is disturbed by allegations of sexual abuse. By tapping into the origins of the work by using the ballroom as the stage, and placing audience members on the same level, the traditional space between the performers and the house is all but eliminated. The result is a feeling akin to being a participant in the proceedings – at some particularly uncomfortable moments, even complicit in them – rather than simply an observer.
To stage it in this manner, mixing Dogme rules with consideration for the audience’s ability to see everything taking place before them, is inspired. The choice brings forth a whole new dimension to Festen that makes it a palpable experience with the impact of a much larger production. This proves especially true the longer the play unfolds. The allegations are only the beginning of this sordid tale, and as the night escalates, and the despicable nature of the family is gradually revealed over the show’s 90 minutes, the uneasy intimacy of the setting ensures tension reigns, as it must.
Of course, it is not the location alone that makes Festen great. Each of the 15 actors involved deliver touching, often powerful performances. Of particular note are Michael Mack, whose fiery role as Michael is at once both disturbing and a pleasure to behold, and Tref Gare. Playing the gloomy Poul, he deftly provides laugh after laugh with the performance that felt best suited to the unconventional structure of the show.
Overall, Festen is a wonderful production that, by its very nature, has the potential to appeal to both theatre regulars and newcomers alike. By bringing the audience closer to the action, and dismantling the barrier that usually divides them, Jennifer Sarah Dean and her team have crafted a moving, intelligent, memorable play that deserves to be experienced.
Festen plays at the Rippon Lea Estate Ballroom July 5 – 22.
You can purchase tickets here.