Dinner with a Dysfunctional Family: Festen at the Arts University Bournemouth (Review)

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An academic theatre review I wrote as part of my scenography unit last year – it now serves as great inspiration for a similarly minimalistic (and disturbing) play I’m currently designing for, Marlowe’s Edward II. Directed by Kirstie Davis and designed by Jess Hawkes, this show was put on by the talented final year acting students at my university.

Festen (Davis, 2015), Arts University Bournemouth Studio Theatre, 24th October, 2015

Everything is set for a lavish dinner party when the Hansen family gathers for the father’s 60th birthday. However, their pretence of an impeccable, merry kindred gets shattered by a shocking revelation about the celebrated patriarch’s sexual abuse that his children had to bear in the past. ‘Soon, this deeply repressed family begins to relish the purging of its many dark secrets’ (Nelson, 1998).

The play was based on Thomas Vinterberg’s original screenplay for the 1998 film Festen; a part of the Dogme 95 movement – a Danish ‘rule-governed, manifesto-based, back-to-basics film initiative’ (Hjort, 2011, p.483).

festen-aub-4Photo by Elliot Trent via Arts University Bournemouth

The traverse stage recreated the ‘claustrophobic nature of the film’ (Arts University Bournemouth, 2015, p.2) that the director, Kirstie Davis appreciated about David Eldridge’s theatre adaptation. Family portraits at the entrance and the greeting from actors dressed as waiters further enhanced the confined feeling and immersion into the play, and promised no escape from the family’s private life and the action.

Similarly to the Dogme 95 films, naturalistic elements featured in the play, such as the antique chairs and dining table in the centre of stage. These, and the ‘chandelier fashioned from antlers’ (Kirkman, 2015), reflected both the wealth of the family and their admiration for superficial attributes. The latter could also be sensed in the mother’s speech she gave to her children, standing up at the end of the long table during the dinner. It revealed her shallow nature and inability to appreciate her ‘eccentric’ (Eldridge, 2015) daughter’s humanitarian achievements, whilst hiding dissatisfaction behind cynical humour.

festen-aub3Photo by Elliot Trent via Arts University Bournemouth

However, the mother was not the only member of this dysfunctional family whose portrayal the actors excelled at; the cast succeeded at the ‘great challenge […] to fully realise these characters’ (Arts University Bournemouth, 2015). For instance, Alex Pinard, who played one of the brothers, Michael: a man seemingly having failed at life, trying to regain his lost power through verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Strong representation of his nature include raping his wife on their bed in the centre of the stage after having lost an argument over a mundane issue, and brutally beating his brother, Christian. It took a slow-motion act of a pillow lifted above Christian neck, ready to suffocate him, for him to realise his love for his brother and prevent his murder in the last minute, and to reconcile and strongly embrace him in the end, sharing the loathing towards their father.

festen-aub-2Photo by Elliot Trent via Arts University Bournemouth

The bed already mentioned served as an important piece of set: they replaced the dining table with it a number of times to create a more intimate setting. Six actors could occupy it at the same time in the beginning of the play and act out three scenarios in three different rooms: a seduction between one of the waitresses and Christian; his sister, Helene’s desperate search for their deceased sister’s suicide note with Lars, the valet; and Michael’s raping of his wife.

Seasoned with the grotesque, never-ending, drunken singing and marching of the family members throughout the play as an attempt to recreate the façade of an ordinary family, the setting, directing and acting managed to encapsulate the audience into a ‘delightfully disturbing’ (Housego, 2015) ninety minutes of hypocrisy, violence, and sombre past of this flawed clan.

festen-aub-5Photo by Elliot Trent via Arts University Bournemouth


Arts University Bournemouth. (2015). Festen, 24 October 2015, programme. Arts University Bournemouth Studio Theatre.

Eldridge, D. (2015). Festen.  Directed by Kirstie Davis. Arts University Bournemouth. Studio Theatre, Arts University Bournemouth. [24 October 2015]

Housego, L. (2015). BUMF Reviews: Festen. [online]
Available from: http://bumfmedia.co.uk/2015/11/bumf-reviews-festen/
[Accessed 5 November 2015]

Hjort, M. (2011). Dogme 95. In: Livingston, P. and Plantings, C. (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. London: Routledge. pp. 483-493.

Kirkman, L. (2015). Festen. [online].
Available from: http://www.sceneone.biz/content/festen
[Accessed 29 October 2015]

Nelson, R. (1998). Rules of the Game. [online].
Available from: http://www.citypages.com/film/rules-of-the-game-6712103
[Accessed 29 October 2015]







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