Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: Elling

Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen
Adapted for stage by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss
Translated by Nicholas Norris Adapted by Simon Bent
Directed by Pamela Rabe

At the end of a pretty intense burst of theatregoing over the past week came Elling at the STC. I had been back and forth between the Gong and Sydney far too much and I was fairly exhausted, the trains being cold and every single one happening to be the ‘all stops’ service. The Wharf at STC is freezing when you have a bit of a wind lifting the air off the ocean and, despite having a new coat I’m growing quite fond of, I was shivering the whole time I was there.

Luckily, Elling turned out to be one of the most warming theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Elling is the story of two unlikely friends, Elling (Darren Gilshenan): an agoraphobic would be underground poet and Kjell (Lachy Hulme): a sex starved orangutan who doesn’t wash his underwear. After being released from the mental asylum where they met, we follow these two as they try to exist in the ‘normal’ society of Oslo; in which they will order pizza, use the telephone and fall in love. Pamela Rabe stages Elling sparingly at first, with beds and tables being moved around to create the asylum, their government apartment or a local diner, then as we move further into the strange world of these characters the stage starts to get lived in, food and refuse pile up on the floor, books fall from the ceiling, and panels on the back wall open up to reveal the moon, an open mic night and a box of sauerkraut. By allowing the stage to map the events we share with Elling and Kjell, Rabe maintains the delicate relationship that this play needs, a sense of camaraderie and care.

Normally I wouldn’t be interested in something quite as sentimental as Elling, but this production won me and the rest of the audience over. After a strange first half in which there were few titters from the auditorium, almost from the outset the second half had us in stiches. This is testament, I think, not to a pacing problem or a lack of humour in Act One but the audience’s need to build a relationship to the characters and larger world of the play. This is a difficult point for me to reconcile with my own practice, having always been interested in colder, more distant works. (see the Martin Crimp Report [The Country, The City, Dealing With Clair] coming soon) That being said I think the important point is not the warmth of the piece, but its focus on a creating a specific kind of relationship with the audience, a strength I also recognised in Talking To Terrorists at UOW. It’s not about making something unmalleable or fixed, it’s about treating every audience member as different, and surfing the wave of the crowd each night. Terrifying… yes. But as in Elling, when soiled underwear mistakenly flew into an elderly gentlemen’s face in D row, Darren Gilshenan’s wide grin proved it can be exhilarating too.



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