Nov 28 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩    Dark matters

Adam House: Wed 26 – Sat 29 Nov 2014

There is a fierce intensity to the Grads’ Festen at Adam House, in a consistently strong production that crackles with energy.

Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov’s original screenplay for the acclaimed film has been adapted for the stage by David Eldridge, retaining the original Danish setting. Successful restaurateur Helge’s family gather for his 60th birthday dinner – minus his eldest daughter, who has recently died.

Festen Ensemble. Photo: Gordon Hughes

Festen Ensemble. Photo: Gordon Hughes

Soon, claims about terrible happenings in the past disrupt the celebration as the play sets sail for decidedly dark waters, featuring distinctly adult themes and language.

While it is a grim story, there is definitely humour here, even if it is so dark as to be almost hateful. There are hints of a turbocharged Alan Ayckbourn in the way that a buttoned-up social occasion is undermined by darker themes. But while an Ayckbourn trademark is to elicit sly laughter from an audience who only later realise the joke’s significance, here the darkest of themes are clearly laid out as the basis of some terrifyingly grim, farcical moments.

It could all seem superficial and wholly unnecessary if it is not done with the rigour this ensemble brings to the table. Claire Wood’s direction creates an impeccable if twisted logic, and the acting is particularly strong in non-verbal cues. The slightest look or gesture convinces that this is a real family, albeit one that brings a new meaning to the word dysfunctional.

There is a crazy energy to the performances that is remarkably well sustained. Some of the things that often prove problematic, such as believably committed swearing, fight sequences or plausible drunkenness, are handled very well here. The use of real food at the dinner, while not always entirely convincing, does not generally have the distancing effect it so often has. There is a lack of subtlety and sureness about some of the lighting, but technically it is an impressive production, particularly in overcoming the problems of having most of the cast seated at a table much of the time.

frighteningly convincing

Christian, the twin brother of the recently deceased daughter, is the fulcrum of events and requires considerable emotional range. Alan Patterson is impressive in the role, combining rage and a withdrawn melancholy that is necessary in order for him to be dismissed as a fantasist by others. David Grimes, as his boorish brother Michael, is frighteningly convincing as an angry, abusive racist. Emma Carter, who plays their sister Helene, copes extremely well with a difficult emotional moment at the play’s climax.

Festen: Helge, Christian and Helene. Photo Gordon Hughes

Festen: Helge, Christian and Helene. Photo Gordon Hughes

The patriarch Helge is a thankless role, but Brian Thomson invests the part with a chilling bonhomie and patrician gusto. Wendy Brindle (Michael’s wife Mette) and Siobhan McGovern (Helge’s wife Else) both provide emotionally centred performances as women who have different ways of coping with domineering men. Sarah-Jane McGeachy, as the Little Girl, is entirely convincing, with the use of a puppet very well done.

The spirited, spiteful comedy of the piece is due to a great extent to excellent timing from Ian Aldred and Chris Pearson, who play guests at the party Helmut and Poul, and Brian Neill’s Grandfather is extremely funny while also seeming to come from somewhere very dark indeed.

Helen Goldie, Colin Thompson and Gregor Haddow, as the various employees of the family, provide a necessary counterbalance as well as some genuine humanity, while Paul Wani Lado has a wounded dignity as Gbatokai, Helene’s boyfriend who is the subject of racism both overt and unconscious.

In the end, very few of the characters display what could be described as redeeming features. The decadence, madness and prejudice that lie just beneath the surface of apparent politeness spill forth, demonstrating how those with power and privilege seek to protect themselves while exploiting others. But if this all sounds dispiriting, the furious, almost unhinged, integrity of the production makes it oddly exhilarating. At times the intensity verges on the terrifying, but it is a courageous and accomplished effort.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including interval
Adam House, 3 Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1HR
Wednesday 26 – Saturday 29 November 2014
Evenings: 7.30 pm
Details at http://www.egtg.co.uk/

Click on the images below to purchase the script or original movie from Amazon:


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