I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these days, the Fringe seems to be principally about comedy. I’ve encountered dozens of stand-ups peddling their wares over the course of the festival, and a quick check of my trusty Fringe Guide reveals that comedy shows take up over 130 pages, whilst theatre occupies a paltry second place with fewer than 100 pages. So, I daresay that the average stroller of the streets may, at this late stage, be feeling just a little tired of all that laughter – such vigorous exercise drains you like that, you know. Should said stroller seek a source of soothing from the legion of jokesters accosting them on every step of their journey, they might be inclined to try something a little darker and edgier. I speak not of Christopher Nolan’s latest release, entertaining though it may be, but of a rather spiffing production performed at the Space on North Bridge; namely, an adaptation of a Danish film called Festen by Aberdeen University’s Centre Stage Theatre Company.
The basic premise of the play is as follows: a successful and respected businessman, Helge, is celebrating his 60th birthday, and, as such, his family and friends have gathered together to eat, drink, reminisce and generally have a gay old time. However, there are dark secrets hanging over the household as everyone sits down to dinner, secrets which may shed light on the recent suicide of Helge’s daughter Linda. Christian, Helge’s eldest son and Linda’s twin brother, is due the honour of making the first speech; but, once he has risen from his chair, the world inhabited by the assembly will be irrevocably shattered. To continue would be to spoil an enthralling and thought-provoking story, but ‘tis suffice to say that tempers will flair, fists will flail and horrifying truths will be uncovered and thrust, hairless, squealing and covered in afterbirth, into the collective consciousness of characters and audience alike.
The venue for this dramatic show was a small theatre within the Space; this cosiness felt appropriate for an intimate family gathering, with audience members clutching their programmes, which were cunningly disguised as invitations to Helge’s 60th. The stage itself was narrow and far from spacious, again emphasising that this was truly a family affair, but also allowing darker themes to be represented visually. A prime example of this was the scene in which various players crowded into one area of the stage as they were shown to their respective rooms; this cluster of characters, separated by nothing but imaginary walls, showed the claustrophobic atmosphere within the house as pent-up emotions and memories created tension, as well as displaying the encroaching effects of such recollections on those whom Mnemosyne had blessed (or should that be cursed?). As these thoughts of the past were released from their holding-cells, the action on the boards reflected the chaos embodied by such thoughts, with performers rushing around the grand dining table to confront the accused, whilst others remained seated, sobbing. In short, the limited capacity of the stage is not, in this case, a hindrance, but is instead a boon, and a boon that is used with artistic excellence throughout.
We move now from the stage to the players who strut their hour (or so) upon it, all of whom are anything but poor. The cast is as a lighted brand: bright, sparking, at times warm and at times destructive. Each and every actor becomes their character entirely, even going so far as to make convincing small talk in the backgrounds of a number of scenes. Every line spoken seems authentic, and is spoken in such a way that it suits whichever character is talking down to a tee; two different performers can order a cup of coffee in vastly dissimilar ways, for example. Whilst every cast member is vastly talented, two particular actors stand out as exceptional. Adam Cook gives the performance of a lifetime as Helge, managing to play the lascivious, inappropriate, embarrassing father whilst endowing him with sinister undertones that develop as the play progresses; his transformation from jocular parent to guiltily savage wreck is as stunning as it is moving. Nick Marshall, meanwhile, is superb as Christian, radiating pent-up awkwardness that conceals a capricious, impotently furious man burdened with sorrow. Every twitch tells a story, every pause speaks volumes and, when Christian chooses to unleash his emotions, every word is imbued with anger, misery and regret. Marshall’s performance is without peer, and is bound to remain with the viewer long after the curtain has fallen.
To conclude, Festen is a fast-paced tale of deceit and darkness; terrifying, edifying and tear-inducing, not necessarily things that one would expect to see in a student show. The direction is unparalleled, and the performances are polished to veritable perfection, with both aspects synthesising into an unbelievably fantastic show. In these dying days of the Fringe, one would be well-advised to see this play about the dying days of a middle-class family as it is torn asunder by hideous secrets, a fitting theme in a time in which no one’s testimony is necessarily trustworthy. You will not be disappointed. Five out of five stars.
More information about this show can be found here.