Elling, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company; 4 June-12 July; www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Comedy is culturally specific, not always but often. For instance the response, in a Sydney theatre foyer, to the term “a Norwegian comedy” is instant chuckles and smiles. The very idea of a Norwegian comedy is – like the bizarre staging of Alexander Rybak’s Eurovision winner Fairytale – something we find innately funny. And when the star of a production is Darren Gilshenan, expectations of laughter are already built in.
Gilshenan is one of the most gifted comedic actors we have and, like all the greatest clowns, he also has reservoirs of pathos and tragedy lurking just beneath the surface. And as Elling he has finally been given a role where all these elements are called upon. In retrospect, it’s what is disconcerting and surprising about the play.
Elling has an interesting history. It is based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, the original stage adaptation was by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. It was translated by Nicholas Norris and this production was adapted by Simon Bent. There was also a Norwegian movie that was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2002. And the play is Pamela Rabe’s choice for her first-ever mainstage production as director.
Rabe is one of Australia’s best-known and most instantly recognisable stage actors. As well as turning in remarkable dramatic performances such as – most recently – a seminal Richard III in Wars of the Roses, she is a mistress of comedy whose sense of timing and nuance are gasp-making. And, it seems, she can interpret those skills through others when she’s not on stage.
Rabe is also backed up by quirky, beautifully-observed costumes by Tess Schofield; an alien and alienated setting (designer Michael Scott-Mitchell) with lighting and sound that accentuate both those uncomforatble factors (Nick Schlieper and Max Lyandvert).
The casting helps: as well as the wondrous Gilshenan there is Yael Stone as the various women whose uncertain fate it is to run into Elling and his pal Kjell. She brings to these multiple roles the intelligence and grounded ease that gave her last year’s Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer.
Lachy Hulme – new to Sydney audiences – is Elling’s friend Kjell Bjarne, a delicious unkempt, clodhopping, 40-year-old sex-mad virgin. His loud, simple presence is the ideal foil for Gilshenan’s febrile, neurotic nerdiness as a man who has always lived with his mother and ended up in an asylum as the least likely room-mate for Kjell.
Once the two are released into society and the care of social worker Frank Asli (Glenn Hazeldine) the comedy works to highlight just how unfunny the world is for people who don’t fit the neat norms of society. Hazeldine has the least rewarding role as a sort of cipher rather than a human being. But as a sounding board and obstruction for Elling and Kjell, he is unselfish and vital to the flow.
One of the curiosities and hazards Elling and Kjell have to negotiate is the quite famous but blocked poet Alfons Jorgensen. Frank Whitten is perfect: his prehensile fingers seek inspiration in Elling’s Moleskin notebook, but as with most things about the play, the conclusion is not the obvious one.
The eventual outcome of Elling is that despite fairly constant laughter and chuckles, it slowly becomes apparent that it’s not really funny. Elling is a man whose terrified but logical view of the world and his place in it makes you wince. The same goes for Kjell’s bumbling innocence. They actually don’t deserve to be laughed at and, as the play unfolds, they become a mirror and reverb in which the way most people behave towards “the other” and “difference” is reflected and played back to the audience.
The charm of Elling lies in the way it depicts the simple delights of everyday ordinary events as monumental achievements for two men not well equipped for the everyday. For Elling, picking up the receiver of a ringing telephone is an act that takes him months to accomplish. Kjell makes friends with the young pregnant woman who lives in their apartment block. She is his first friend other than Elling and when they fall in love it is a beautiful moment.
The final twist in the tale is also a sweet thing. Yet all in all, this elegaic piece has the pathos, rhythm, musicality and hidden emotion of a baroque saraband. Where some were laughing, others were in tears. It is also Darren Gilshenan’s most subtle, developed and brilliant performance in a career of dazzling turns.