Sunday 23 October 2016

On Festen

Last night I saw the Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Festen. And this isn’t a review. Because 1) there’s not much point reviewing a play once its run has finished, and 2) I know a small but not insignificant number of the cast/creative team, so any objectivity would be hideously out of the window. But it was astonishing - by the end of the show, I saw about four audience members in tears, and most people I talked to afterwards were too shellshocked to be particularly articulate about what they’d seen. And yes, I’ve seen a few professional shows that had this sort of effect on people, but only a few. And I’ve never seen amateur theatre have this effect on people.

I can be prone to hyperbole. And like I said, some friends were involved. But there’s a chance that this was the best amateur show I’ve seen.

Let’s take a step back. Festen is based on a 1998 Danish film, adapted for the stage and translated into English in 2004. It’s about a wealthy, insular family, who have reunited to celebrate the 60th birthday party of their patriarch. At the party, one of this patriarch’s sons announces that, as a child, he and his sister were sexually abused by their father, and that this abuse led to the suicide of his sister. The rest of the family spend the party trying to ignore, downplay, avoid and deny the accusations, treating them as an awkward embarrassment from an estranged relative. It is emotionally brutal, viciously tense and eventually cathartic. It uses many of the hold-and-release tricks of the genre thriller, but uses them to make its exploration of power, wealth and communication bruised and raw.

It is very, very good.

A lot of the reason for that is craft. The performers are great, but they’re also perfectly cast, and give drilled, polished performances. The location of the stage (the Oxford University Maths Institute, all glass and metal, full of pale and chilly geometries) suits the show better than any specially-built set could. The music, with its anxious strings and sudden waves of electronic beats, unsettles before the first words are said. All the older men wear masonic pins, a visual reminder their clubbishness and codes of silence. Every detail is precise; considered.

But there’s also the element of surprise. I’ve been involved in amateur theatre, on-and-off, for a few years, and there are very good reasons to avoid being too risky. Putting a play on isn’t cheap, and getting audiences isn’t easy. Self-indulgence, or picking deliberately obscure choices will financially ruin you. And this will stop your amateur group from being able to make theatre.

To have the confidence to make something so jagged and frightening and strange - to want to confront your audience rather than comfort them - to trust in the quality of your art enough to know that an audience will find and follow you - and to do all of this in the realm of amateur theatre - is brave. Inspiring, even.

And I’m not sure what conclusions we can take from this. Safe choices of material allow amateur dramatics groups to keep functioning. You can get audiences to show up for Shakespeare, or Wilde, or adaptations of popular classic novels. This isn’t bad. Good art gets to keep being made. And if Festen hadn’t worked, if it had dropped the ball, it would have been disastrous. The material it touches on is sensitive; bad handling could have rendered it glib or exploitative. And you can’t trust that every risk will end up a success.

But we can take comfort that this exists. We can take comfort that flying off the map is possible. We can take comfort that sometimes being unsafe is ok. Sometimes being unsafe is good.

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