Festen Cyril Teste
Cyril Teste adapted the Thomas Vinterberg movie Festen for the stage in a combined film/live performance version.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” That was true in Shakespeare’s time, in the shadow of Elsinore castle, and it was still true in 1998 in the hotel where Festen ( titled The Celebration in English) takes place. The film by Thomas Vinterberg recounts the noirish turn taken by a hypocritical family party in celebration of the sixtieth birthday of its patriarch, Helge. At the beginning of the meal, one of his sons, Christian, proposes a toast. He has prepared two speeches, one on yellow paper and the other on green paper. Helge chooses, Christian reads. He reveals a family secret that shatters the father’s bland image, compromises the mother and unburdens Christian. Alone facing the guests—we don’t know if they are hypnotized, complaisant or just waiting to see what happens next—Christian has to restart his story several times to shatter the precarious reining equilibrium. Patriarchy, incest, racism and class violence are denounced one after another in a portrait of a morally adrift society. “Vinterberg made a kind of manifesto against the rise of nationalism in Denmark, which began in the 1990s before spreading throughout Europe,” Teste explains. It is because the evil proliferated beyond Denmark, and because he wanted to address the issue of the family, that Teste revisited this drama, basing himself on a stage adaptation written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov in 2003. “Nobody talks about the rise of nationalism in Denmark anymore. Now it’s considered normal—we’ve accepted a despicable vision of society.” FROM DOGME TO FILMED PERFORMANCE This theater version of Festen, premiered in 2017 at Bonlieu - Scène Nationale d’Annecy, is as much a continuation of Vinterberg’s wrestling with political and historical issues as of his aesthetic experiment. Teste wanted to shock people as powerfully as he was when he first saw the film, one of the first to follow the strictures laid down in Dogme 95. That manifesto, written by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, called for more naturalistic films, with no special effects or other artifices, shot with hand-held cameras in normal settings and leaving room for improvisation. By applying these rules Festen looks like a home movie made with a camcorder, especially in the dinner scenes, the epicenter of the film’s accusatory speeches and strings of insults. The camera seems to bear raw witness to group inertia.
Teste has reinvented this work as a film/performance, a practice developed during his work as a member of the MxM and previously seen in his last theater work, Nobody. In bringing a camera onstage, he crosses theater and film to produce as many points of view as possible of the unspooling action. Whereas classical theater offers audience members both the choice of watching what they want to watch and the possibility of an overall vision, video superimposes a vision that can focus on certain details or broaden the space of action by - looking offstage or backstage. What this method retains from the Dogme 95 principles is mainly the simplicity of the whole setup. One Steadicam-mounted camera follows the actors onstage, capturing and retransmitting images in real time, a technical challenge that sometimes turns out to be much more complicated than it might seem. Far from being a gratuitous utilization of new technologies, film performance conveys meaning. The theatrical dimension materializes the claustrophobic four walls enclosing the characters and forcing a plot resolution, while the film dimension allows the audience to leave the dining room to explore bedrooms, offices and kitchens for one-onone conversations and the telling of secrets. Above all, it permits a clash of discourses. “In the beginning, the father is the star of his own movie, a perfect film about his sixtieth birthday. When his secret is revealed, his son shatters that fiction and takes over the stage. Thus we go back and forth between stage and film, with the two media never entering into a rivalry with one another,” Teste says. One of the roles played by the camera is to reveal the various characters’ point of view. “The filmic dimension of the play gives a lot of emphasis to long takes and calm observation. But each character tries to take over the film narrative, to appropriate the narrative by means of images.” HAMLET OR NOT HAMLET While this production is obviously heavily indebted to Vinterberg, Shakespeare hovers not far behind. Christian, the young protagonist who exposes the hidden truth about the allpowerful head of the family, resembles Hamlet. “Both men are haunted by a ghost they can’t get free of,” Teste remarks, recalling that Christian repeatedly sees his dead sister. Both are fighting against an unjust order that opposes their values, as obviously symbolized by the guests’ predilection for partying the day after a burial. “The other major point in common is the way the two protagonists use theater to bring out the truth,” Teste continues, explaining, “In Shakespeare, Hamlet says that theater will be a trap by which he will ‘catch the conscience of the king.’ Christian uses the theater constituted by the dinner to smash his father’s narrative.” But contrary to Hamlet, Christian survives this revelation, surprisingly considering the dramatic tension melding violence, madness and indifference. Teste even talks about his work’s happy ending: “We see the end of a world and not the end of the world. But twenty years after the movie, we’ve become children of this world. We need to change it, but not with the idea of a clean slate. The point is to watch for the signs, however weak, of positive change.” Consequently, the dinner table must not be seen only as a site of violence and pretence. It is also the core around which a collectivity is constituted. “The dinner table plays a central role in our society. It can still bring people together despite all the complexity involved.” This is attested to by the refusal of the secondary characters to give up their place. Gbatokai, the only non-family member present, stands up to the racists and supports Christian; Kim the cook, Christian’s childhood friend, encourages him to keep up the fight by keeping anyone from leaving; even his brother Michael, the father’s ally, finally listens to reason. Thus Festen is the story of a crumbling edifice. We see the house change during the course of a cruel day followed by a long night and ending with another dawn. The curtain comes down too quickly for us to know what will become of the state of Denmark and many others.
Thibaut Sardier, a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, is a columnist and critic.