Ok, maybe not all of it. I'm referring to Festen, a thoroughly shitty play I was unfortunate enough to catch while I was in London. With a gloriously renewed Netflix subscription, I finally got around to seeing The Celebration, the Dogma film the play was based on, and now feel I have sufficient authority to officially dump on this most offensive waste of my precious time, which could have been better spent continuing my rigorous one-way correspondences with the hottest indie celebrities of the day.
But I won't waste too many words on Festen (which, admittedly, I saw about four months ago), because ultimately it's a fluff piece...the play fails to engage any of the provocative issues it raises (incest, rape, the slow burial and gradual resurfacing of family wounds), and after seeing The Celebration I can't say that the film version exactly "engages" any debate that I came to expect from the play, either. The film -- the story of a son who confronts his father about childhood sexual abuse at the guilty father's 60th birthday celebration at the family's hotel -- establishes atmosphere and context, which, funnily enough, are important.
This play was a bad idea from the start, using the wrong approach (stylized noir) for the wrong source. The Celebration's narrative simplicity is a natural result of its technical restraints, whereas Festen -- which actually further streamlines the film's already spare storyline -- is all affect. The plot suffers poor translation to stage. In downplaying the significance of the hotel's staff (who in the film have always known about the sexual abuse and express this early in the film), Festen most closely resembles a murder mystery of sorts, where we're kept guessing about the nature of the suggested abuse until the father admits his crimes. This moment, included in both versions of the story, culminates in the following exchange:
Son: Why did you do it?
Father: Because you weren't good for anything else.
Won't man up on the T-ball field, eh?
This line is problematic in both versions of the story...the father is a rapist because little Christian wasn't a concert pianist by age nine? (This isn't entirely a joke -- the father also refers to his son as "talentless.") The response and its underlying sentiment ring false, to put it lightly. Of course, in the film this line is an indignant aside, spoken carelessly as the father, exposed and ashamed, hastily leaves his guests. In the play, the entire script leads up to this line. It's a revelation so gravely calculated that the entire audience let out a loud gasp upon hearing it. Subtle. The play consistently, and unwisely, sacrifices a pervasive ominous ambience for simpler, broader attempts to shock, a move that trivializes the film's subject matter.
Also crucial is the number of guests, which in the play is reduced from forty or so to a mere dozen, all major characters. The culpability by association is transferred from a relatively faceless group to a small clique of familiar individuals, which drastically changes a wider argument in the film about a collective willingness to overlook and ignore the crimes of friends and neighbors. One example that remains in memory: one of the sons incites a racist sing-along in response to his sister's African-American boyfriend (his nationality difference is eliminated in the play -- both Danes and Americans are, for obvious reasons, British). The scene is disturbing in the film because the crowd joins in intuitively. In the play, the song is sung by family members only, specifically and maliciously, lending the scene a forced sense of cruelty that feels superfluous -- it comes across not as a commentary on racism, but like...racism. The overall effect is reduced to mere shock value, essentially a perverse thrill (sorry, "shock") for the audience.
Anyway. Since about four people I know have even heard of this play, let alone seen it (any London people reading this fledgling blog yet? Can we talk about free refills?), I won't go any further. But if your name happens to be RUFUS NORRIS, who DIRECTED THE STAGE ADAPTATION OF FESTEN, or DAVID ELDRIDGE, who WROTE THE STAGE ADAPTATION OF FESTEN, or THOMAS VINTERBERG, whose film called THE CELEBRATION was MUCH BETTER THAN THE STAGE ADAPTATION OF FESTEN FOR THE WEST END LYRIC THEATRE in LONDON, ENGLAND...and if you just happen to Google this post for some strange reason, please comment below so that we can discuss why you pursued this project. I'm genuinely curious.