Theatre Review: Festen (The Celebration) @ The Barbican

By Nicolas Chinardet Last edited 150 months ago

Last Updated 11 November 2011

Theatre Review: Festen (The Celebration) @ The Barbican

A Danish play, featuring incest and paedophilia, and performed in Romanian with English surtitles may not seem, on first consideration, the most appealing proposition a theatre can dream up to fill a house.

This is, however, what is currently on offer at the Barbican - a stage adaption of Festen (The Celebration) by Nottara Theatre of Bucharest and based on the script and 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg.

It is a truth universally acknowledged in many a piece of fiction that families are complicated and as we are reminded very early in this production, the Klingenfeldt-Hansen family is no exception.

The table is set for the 60th birthday dinner of the patriarch, Helge (Alexandru Repan) and as the family reunion progresses we realise how complicated the relationships between the main members of this particular clan actually are.

Linda, one of the four children, died only a few months ago and her ghost (Cristina Pāun) literally haunts the family home. Soon comes the time for the speeches and Christian (Ion Grosu), the eldest, drops a bomb that completely fails to explode, due to the wilful refusal of all present to acknowledge the gravity of what has just been said.

From there the celebration stumbles on willy nilly, oscillating between understated farce and outright drama, to the point where we start to wonder if Christian is simply mad. Eventually, secrets and lies are revealed culminating in Helge's downfall; leading Helmut Van Sachs (the family friend officiating as unflappable MC - Emil Hossu) to remark euphemistically: "it is quite difficult to be the toastmaster today".

The production, an initiative by the Romanian Cultural Institute, is installed in the Pit, a studio theatre in the basement of the Barbican Centre. This is an inspired choice of a venue for that particular play, adding an ideal sense of intimacy and claustrophobia to the experience.

Vinterberg's award-winning script raises issues that are probably even more present in the social psyche now than they were at the time of writing but it only uses them as narrative devices to explore the tribalism and hypocrisy of the family.

It is served in this by a first-rate cast who offer some very intense performances. The actors remain clearly shaken by what they have just been through when, at the end, they should be basking in their highly deserved applause.

As mentioned, the performance is in Romanian with English surtitles. This wouldn't be a problem if the surtitles were synchronised with the performance. Unfortunately, on the night we attended, they were almost invariably displayed late and sometimes too fast. There was also a feeling that not everything that was said had been translated.

This rather marred the experience but remains the only truly negative point of an otherwise excellent night.

Festen (The Celebration) is at The Barbican until 19 November. Tickets: £18. Londonist received a press ticket to see last night’s performance.