Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Festen - WAAPA (7 May 2014)

Silence.

A powerful weapon in any play’s arsenal.

Two moments stand out from WAAPA’s production of Festen.

The second one first:

The play ends. The lights dim.

SILENCE.

One beat, two beats, three…

The audience is stunned at what they’ve just witnessed.

Slowly the applause comes. Eventually everyone is clapping as the third year acting students take their bows.

The only thought in my mind is “wow”.

As I leave The Roundhouse Theatre and walk down the long corridor, speechless, two young women behind me are talking. One says, “I almost didn’t want to clap.” Not because the play is bad (there is absolutely no danger of that) but because we have seen a majestic, terrible horror played out before our very eyes.

And it is riveting.

We’ll come to the second moment of silence within the play later but safe to say this is not for the faint-hearted. It is shocking, confronting, in your face theatre that is made all the more powerful by the intimate nature of The Roundhouse Theatre. A front row seat has me immersed in the action, especially moments of violence that are ugly and brutal and take place right in front of me.

The story itself sees a family gathering to celebrate the patriarch’s 60th birthday.  A son delivers one of two speeches after he asks his father to choose between a green and yellow envelope. Green is picked, the truth speech. The son then proceeds to detail how he and his twin sister (who has taken her own life) were raped by their father as children. The ripple effects through the family, guests and staff are explored in all their tragedy and ghastly pain. There is disbelief; counter accusations as the father harangues his son in one memorable encounter; a mother imploring her child to apologise; a brother’s anger flowering into violence; sympathy from unlikely quarters; and a voice beyond the grave in the form of the suicide letter from the twin sister that leaves no doubt.

It’s after the reading of this letter (from another sister) that the second moment of silence arises. Everyone is speechless. The father tries to shrug it off by proposing a toast to his dead daughter but no-one will move, no one will say anything. Their stillness is stifling, the silence a punctuation point. It’s wonderful theatre.

The performances are superb and all the more laudable because a more reprehensible bunch of characters you will not find – misogynists, racists, rapists – who are either emotionally brittle or utterly callous. They may not be likeable but it is a fascinating exploration of entrenched values within a family and how they infect each generation.

The head of this family, Helge, is wonderfully played by Jonny Hawkins as a man who knows he commands every room and holds sway over every person. The slow crumbling of this self-assurance until he meekly leaves after coming to realise everybody hates him, most notably all his children, is compelling. The scene where he takes Christian to task about the stories he could retort with is gut wrenching. When the traumatised son begs to know why his father did those terrible things, the reply is delivered almost matter-of-factly: “It’s all you were good for.” This had me gasping at the sheer monstrosity of it all.

Christian, played by Henry Hammersla, is the son who starts things in motion with the speech. At first the character seems the only ‘respectable’ one and is played quite dispassionately as the bombshell is dropped. Hammersla ramps up the emotional intensity as the play progresses and is convincing as the aggrieved son who mourns his sister and his own fate. The outburst at his mother over her complicity is a highlight.

Joel Horwood is excellent playing Christian’s brother, Michael, a nasty piece of work who reeks of entitlement and treats his wife Mette (Felicity McKay), the staff and a guest, Poul (Alexander Frank) with utter contempt. Interestingly though, it is the cocksure Michael who ultimately takes the father to task with physical force and forbids him contact with his own daughter.   

Felicity McKay is Michael’s poor, set upon wife, Mette. You feel real sympathy for her character but McKay also is very good at portraying the wife who will protect her own child from the horrors of this family if she can. Even in scenes where she has little dialogue McKay is always attentive to where her daughter is, stroking her hair or hand and comforting her.

That daughter is the Little Girl (Emma Diaz) who represents innocence within this tainted world but also the spirit of the dead twin, Linda who Christian thinks he periodically sees. She flits around the theatre and brings welcome moments of joy and gentle humour.

Christian’s other sister, the eccentric of the family, Helene (Jane Watt), also chases ghosts throughout this mansion though agrees to stay in her sister’s old room. Watt gives an exuberant performance as the emotionally vital Helene and the sadness on her face is writ large when reading Linda’s letter that confirms Helge’s guilt. She is as disgusted as the audience is when the family sings a deeply racist “Sambo man” song in front of her new boyfriend, Gbatokai (Julio Cesar), who her very own brother, Michael, had earlier called a ‘monkey’. What makes this even more offensive is that three generations of family from the Grandfather (Aleks Mikic) on down take such glee in the singing. No wonder the emcee for the night, the persuasive Helmut (Adam Sollis) has such a hard time keeping things in check.  

Holly Dyroff is Helge’s wife, Else, and her highlight comes when she asks Christian to apologise in front of everyone. Little is she prepared for the anguished response that shows her complicity, a revelation that resonates strongly as real world stories unfortunately abound. It’s a telling moment when Else later refuses to leave with Helge at the end of the play, siding with her children.

The cast is rounded out by Harry Richardson, Alex Malone and Stephanie Tsindos who all play staff at the mansion and have knowledge of the events that swirl around Christian and his family.

I found Festen utterly enthralling even though it had me squirming in my seat more than once. But that response is a genuine reaction to how well the actors handle the deliberately provocative material. The set is quite fabulous with large double doors at the back of the stage that open onto a hallway at the rear of the set with economical use of props and lighting creating the dining room or various other rooms on the main checkered space. There is a great mural on either side of those doors depicting hounds fighting amongst themselves, an apt symbol. The director Andrea Moor makes full use of The Roundhouse Theatre as characters chase each other through the upper level and also mingle with the audience at one point because, after all, isn’t this meant to be a celebration?

This is stunning theatre well worth checking out if you can on its final night, Thursday 8th May.

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