Never having seen a film by Denmark’s Dogme group, I didn’t understand, till I saw the stage version of Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen (The Celebration in English), why I instinctively stayed away. After seeing David Eldridge’s adaptation, as directed by Rufus Norris, I figured it out: I didn’t need to. For the theater, Festen is old news; we’ve long since been there and done that, more meaningfully and with better results. A dysfunctional family gets its secrets revealed during a celebration? Please. The moral must be that you can teach a new Dogme old tricks.
To be fair, Festen isn’t the worst piece of recycling in the history of standard play genres turned into movies (and back into plays); it’s just fairly predictable and not terribly deep. Its big innovation is that the characters absorb the shocking news passively and go on with their everyday social rituals. And what shocking news? Affluent Danes can be child abusers and even racists. Pardon me while I faint from astonishment. Norris’s production works hard to freshen up the story’s stench of standard-issue realist melodrama: Smooth and sleek, taking place in a black void full of phantasmagoric sound effects and silently gliding scenery, it aims for a kind of hieratic surrealism that, sadly, only makes the material seem more shabbily conventional in contrast. Weirdly, in some quarters there seems to be a desire to blame the actors for the failure of this threadbare event; and yet, once you eliminate a few media celebrities dropped in from the two-dimensional world, Festen is one of the best-cast shows in town, and Michael Hayden’s performance as the troublemaking elder son is particularly goo
d. Michael Feingold