Spectre at the feast

Thomas Vinterberg's searing Dogme film Festen is bringing its dark family secrets to the Almeida. Can Jane Asher and Jonny Lee Miller recreate the excruciating horror of the original?
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The Independent Culture

I once saw it argued that, for a certain kind of paedophile, child abuse is a non-contact activity. The desires of these wholly voyeuristic perverts are satisfied by downloading inanimate images. Therefore, if you were to put for purchase on the internet fake, computer-generated but titillatingly hyper-real-looking depictions of paedophile acts, you might well help to reduce the horrific trade in footage of true-life atrocities. No child would be harmed, so the reasoning goes. It is only the soul of the consumer that would be further corrupted.

The deepest-dyed utilitarian might feel a bit queasy about endorsing such an alternative. But that proposal springs back to mind now because the Almeida Theatre in Islington is about to unveil a stage version (adapted by the dramatist David Eldridge and directed by Rufus Norris) of Thomas Vinterberg's brilliant 1999 Danish movie Festen (or The Celebration). In its compelling depiction of the long-term effects of child abuse and in the off-the-wall vividness with which it shows the powder keg finally exploding under the fortress of a family in obdurate denial, Festen remains one of the most insightful pieces yet produced about the victims of paedophilia.

It was also the first movie to be filmed within the self-imposed rules and technical restrictions laid down in the manifesto of the Dogme95 movement, founded by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. As such, its methods are the stark antithesis of the technological forgery that would have to be practised to disinfect child porn by turning it into sheer simulation. The dictates of Dogme - which include the stipulations that the camera must be hand-held and that "optical work and filters are forbidden" - aim at a different kind of moral purification. The directors' pledge was "a vow of chastity" - a resolve to cleanse the movie industry by eschewing the manipulative trickery and formulaic genre habits of commercial Hollywood product.

On screen, Festen is a heady mix of the quintessentially filmic and elements that seem curiously intent on beating theatre at its own game of being fully "in the moment". For example, there's a Dogme rule that sound must never be produced separately from the images - which meant that the noise of knives and forks had to be recorded from literal scratch on every take in the long banquet sequences. The piece is set at the opulent 60th birthday party of a rich and well-respected hotelier; the festivities are thrown into turmoil when the eldest son, Christian (who will be played at the Almeida by Jonny Lee Miller), gets up and turns a projected toast into a devastating public revelation of the sexual abuse repeatedly inflicted (by the patriarch) on him and his twin sister (now dead by her own hand) when they were children.

The extreme mobility of the hand-held digital video camera helps to give the proceedings the feel, at times, of a home movie - a family with secrets posing in clichéd solidarity, yet at the mercy of an intrusive, unstable device that can poke its nose in anywhere. But there's also a strong sense of theatre: the single setting of a country hotel; a closely knit ensemble; and more than a smack of Hamlet. Like Shakespeare's tragedy, Festen depicts junketing over which a recent funeral (in this case, the dead twin's) casts a dangerous shadow. And its protagonist, too, is a black-suited discontent, returned from abroad. Given that the movie arguably gets the best of both worlds and media, what's the point of creating a stage version?

One of the answers to that question is brought home to me vividly almost as soon as I meet Rufus Norris, David Eldridge and Jane Asher (who is playing Christian's mother) during a recent lunch-hour break from rehearsal. In a little office at the Almeida headquarters, a buffet of sandwiches and coffee has been laid on an oval dining-table, and while I am waiting for the trio to arrive, I think of a black joke. When we are gathered, I rise from my seat and clink my spoon against a coffee cup.

Cue wan laughter and a palpable shudder from those present, for that is the nerve-racking thing that happens not once but three times, in Festen as Christian signals for silence by tapping his wineglass before elaborating on his indictment. In fact, it's not Hamlet but Macbeth that you're reminded of here. Just when you think he has finished or been successfully ejected, Christian manages to return to the table with the accusatory nightmarish recurrence of Banquo's ghost at the Macbeths' first dinner party as monarchs.

My little stunt turns out to be instructive because it gets us talking immediately about an odd but revealing feature of one's response to such moments. The clinks against the wineglass represent, after all, blows for truth and justice. Yet each time, you find yourself wishing that he would stop, and that is only partly because you dread that the more he says, the more they'll try to pass it off as mental disturbance. As Asher, who looks as though she could preside over any situation with aplomb, is quick to point out: "It's also because the social embarrassment is excruciating. And in the live, shared experience of theatre, this aspect of things will be intensified."

Eldridge indicates that that aspect will be further heightened, too: "I have tightened the focus of the party to 12 family members and close friends. It isn't diluted by the 80-odd business associates that there are in the movie."

"There was", Norris reveals, "a Polish stage version in which the audience were cast as fellow dinner guests, served real food while sitting round one big table with the characters." There's hospitality for you: inviting punters to a meal expressly designed to strangle the appetite. We agree that that is a paradox too far.

The four of us talk about the issues, aesthetic and moral, that arise from converting the film into a piece of theatre. The first thing the makers of the original wanted to know was how the Almeida version was going to handle the mysterious ghostly "presence" of the recently deceased sister, conveyed in the movie by sudden, spectral point-of-view shots, which, as Rufus notes, "you can't do in stage drama". There is only one child in Eldridge's adaptation, a nine-year-old granddaughter of the violator, who will solve the problem by at times striking Christian as a haunting apparition of his twin "at the age", says the playwright, "when they were both abused". The various youngsters playing her will, crucially, reports Asher, "be well away from the stage during the most graphic description of the abuse and during an episode when one character subjects another to appalling racist insults".

London has already seen a theatrical adaptation of Festen: an ambitious but disappointing Polish account that visited Sadler's Wells a couple of years ago. It tried and failed to shift round all the hotel settings, above and below stairs, without losing high definition. Using a design by the ever-startling Ian MacNeil, the Almeida production looks as though it will be a more powerfully concentrated affair. Three couples will appear to be surreally cohabiting the same bedroom. The patriarch used to abuse his children at bath-time, thus polluting for them the idea of "cleanliness". A bathroom is where the sister committed suicide. "But bathrooms won't feature visually in this staging," the director divulges. "Instead, there's a soundscape by Paul Arditti. Right from the start, there will be the ominous recorded noise of a dripping tap", which will presumably build in significance as the evening unfolds. "Funnily enough," Norris adds, "that would be out of bounds in Dogme filming, where the sound and its source can't be prised apart."

There are, apparently, about 40 stage spin-offs of this movie knocking around the world. The statistic makes me wonder aloud whether Dogme is turning into a purist's Disney. "Maybe there will be a West End musical soon," Asher jokes. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Festen? Or, even better, Elton John's? Don't smile, or you'll be tempting fate.

'Festen', Almeida Theatre, London N1 (020-7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk) tonight to 1 May