Something is rotten in the state of the upper crust Danish family that has gathered in a magnificent country house hotel to celebrate the 60th birthday of the clan’s wealthy patriarch. The occasion is supposed to run on familiar, well-rehearsed lines, instead it descends into nightmare when the eldest son departs from the script and accuses his father of sexual abuse.
David Eldridge’s dramatisation of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film, which premiered at the Almeida earlier this year, has happily lost little of its power to shock and enthral in its transfer to the West End.
Festen was the first film to be made under the now notorious edicts of the Dogme school of stripped-down, back to basics filmmaking and Rufus Norris’ gripping production shares the movie’s raw energy. There is, however, nothing artless about his impeccably crafted staging.
Paul Arditti’s eerie sound design establishes a sense of unease right from the outset. The noise of dripping water and a child’s nervous laughter is curiously unsettling. When Luke Mably’s edgy, overstrung Christian drops his bombshell, we comprehend that the sounds disturbingly echo the childhood bathtimes when he and his twin sister, the recently deceased Linda, were raped by their father.
Festen is not unrelentingly grim, though. There are moments of ghastly black comedy as the older generation’s efforts to uphold proprieties become increasingly farcical. The family and their guests are determined to stick to the time-honoured rituals, including the singing of boisterous, boorish songs and the tapping of glasses to announce a speech.
When Christian takes the floor, Stephen Moore’s imperious, patrician father disdainfully brushes off the accusations. But with moral support below stairs from Andrew Frame’s chef and Ruth Millar’s waitress, Mably’s anguished son steels himself to his task until the force of his revelations shatter even the icy poise of his mother - a truly chilling Jane Asher - and his father’s carapace of arrogant self-possession.