The ghost of Hamlet returns to Denmark, again, in TR Warszawa’s stage adaptation of ‘Festen’

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TR Warszawa's production of 'Festen (The Celebration)' (Pavel Antonov)
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In the second half of the twentieth century, the figure of Hamlet came to hold a powerful grip over the European imagination. 

Against the backdrop of a time coming ever more out of joint—in which Communist dreams had disintegrated into a totalitarian nightmare in the East and “mutually assured destruction” had become a potential endgame to the Cold War—Shakespeare’s tragedy was seen as an allegory of historical catastrophe. In East Berlin in 1977, Heiner Müller’s play Hamletmachine opened with the words: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLABLA, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” In Poland, the Hamlet resonance was felt with particular acuity by postwar artists and authors Zbigniew Herbert, Andrzej Wajda, and Jan Kott, among others.

Grzegorz Jarzyna’s stage adaptation of the 1998 Danish film Festen (The Celebration)currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO—suggessts that the Hamlet myth continues to occupy a central place in the Polish imagination.

The 1998 film—which was directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg according to the rules of the Dogme 95 collective—follows a modern-day Danish family that comes apart at the seams when its eldest son publicly accuses his father of horrific crimes during a family banquet in honor of the patriarch’s sixtieth birthday.

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Jarzyna’s adaptation was originally staged in Warsaw’s TR Warszawa theater in 2001. Yale theater professor and critic Tom Sellar described it as “a cri de coeur from the generation struggling to liberate itself from Communism and obliged to distinguish between venerable legacies and oppressive ones.” Appearing eleven years later in Brooklyn, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and Occupy Wall Street’s appearance on the American political scene, this iteration of the production resonates with its New York audience by casting its generational aspersions upon the forces of capitalism as much as anywhere else.

The drama centers upon the Hamlet-like figure of Christian, played here by Andrzej Chyra, son of the wealthy hotelier and businessman Helge, played by Jan Peszek. Christian has come home to his father’s estate for a birthday celebration that follows hard upon the recent funeral for his twin sister Linda, who committed suicide before the play’s beginning but whose presence haunts the old home. When called upon to toast his father during dinner, Christian rises and almost nonchalantly tells the assembled guests that Helge regularly raped him and his sister Linda as children.

From there, the façade of bourgeois respectability starts to unravel, but not immediately. In his staging, Jarzyna preserves one of the film’s most unsettling aspects: the matter-of-factness with which Christian reports upon the family’s buried secrets, and the astonishing degree to which these exposures meet with almost no response, at least initially, from his loved ones. Jarszyna, like Vinterberg before him, is concerned with the question of what we are willing to ignore, deny, misunderstand, rationalize, or conveniently forget so that the workings of a community may continue to proceed uninterruptedly—in short, with the question of how ideology functions. 

In this respect, the production has something to say to the current political-economic moment in Europe and the United States. If, in 2001, the production staged a generational revolt against the legacy of Communism in Eastern Europe, in its present context it resonates more directly with an age coming to awareness of the excesses and exploitations of its own wealthy capitalist patriarchs. Here, the question of what we willingly excuse so the party can continue unimpeded once again comes to the fore. When Helge’s forced, public confession is followed almost immediately by a scene of the party guests dancing, we have the sense that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. As Jan Kott wrote in Shakespeare Our Contemporary: “Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless it is produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs all the problems of our time.” The same holds true for adaptations of the Hamlet myth, Festen included.

Jarszyna’s production remains mostly faithful to Vinterberg's screenplay, notwithstanding a few cut scenes that help streamline the plot for performance in a theatrical setting. His approach differs most sharply from Vinterberg’s in the respective moods evoked by each. 

Vinterberg’s film plays out in pale and dreamy tones that blur the line between fantasy and reality, leaving the audience negotiating and renegotiating the question of what actually happened, almost until the very end. By comparison, most of Jarsyna’s production is overcast with a sense of looming threat, melancholy thunder-clouds, and the sounds of rain and Schubert’s Ständchen playing intermittently in the background. These are complemented by original music by Paweł Mykietyn and Piotr Domiński that seems as if it were being played underwater. (In both the film and the production, the suggestion is that Linda’s bathtub suicide was an act of self-drowning, Ophelia-style.) 

The production finds creative solutions for adapting its material to the stage. Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s scenic design sets the action in a single large room—lined on stage right by a row of hotel suite doors—allowing transitions between scenes to take place simply and elegantly, while also permitting simultaneous actions to replace events that occur via montage in different locations in the film. Jarsyna frequently avoids Vinterberg’s gritty, Dogme-inflected naturalism of character and situation in favor of a more physically explicit, less psychological touch (as, for example, when Christian and his love interest Pia begin behaving like dogs at the end of act one), but the effect is far from inelegant. 

TR Warszawa’s 'Festen' (The Celebration) is playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Brooklyn. Tickets are $40 to $55 and are available at 718.254.8779 or here.