When I first saw the film of Elling I saw more than the “ordinary mysteries”of “what is friendship?” “What is it to feel insecure” etc., that director Petter Naess describes. Those are objective questions for sound minds. Elling, super-smart and eloquent, and his only friend Kjell Bjearne, super horny and ape-like, can’t ask or explore sound mind questions; they have psychiatric illnesses, and they are perpetually “In the world but not of it”. Their very friendship poses questions about the differences between illusion and delusion and how to recognise reality…even your own reality…that “sane” people could not begin to answer.
These two unlikely (I’m avoiding quirky) characters become friends; they are released from a mental hospital together; they are given a two bedroom flat in the city and told to lead normal lives. It’s a paradox since they have no concept of normal except in the context of their past, and those days are long gone. How do they “act normal” when normalcy can’t be defined by going out shopping or answering the telephone? The premise always reminds me of the old joke about an alien who lands at a desert petrol station, walks up to a pump and says “Take me to your leader.” The worlds simply do not intercept.
Perhaps Elling loses something in the translation, but, for me, the charm and delicacy of the film were inexorably linked to fragility and vulnerability. Elling and Kjell live in a world of their own making, and their own choosing. There’s a certain sanity in that. They trust each other; they find strength in each other; that’s where the poignancy lies….two aliens who choose to cling together rather than forge relationships with petrol pumps! Bound together by that fragile gossamer thread of trust, there is no room for anyone else in their two person existence, lest that thread be broken…and there is great danger in allowing a third person into that world; the thread does not stretch. This is a love story told through friendship – and embracing any outsider is tantamount to infidelity.
This should be an exquisitely subtle and touching comedic piece in shades so delicate you can barely see the difference in the hues, but it is now a much broader palette full of dazzling colours and strong physicality. Subtlety doesn’t have to be bleak. The flaw – if indeed it is one to anyone but me - may lie in Simon Bent’s adaptation, or perhaps Pamela Rabe has foreseen that we Australians need our humour to be broader, and have little time for subtext and nuance. At any rate, this “Elling” is played for comedy, not poignancy, and needs to have that fragile thread cut to divorce it from its original intent and allow it a life of its own.
Darren Gilshenan is impressive as Elling, though a little too “knowing” in some places. His fixation on his dead mother is touching; his anguish and loneliness, when he thinks he has lost Kjell to a real woman, is heartbreaking. Hayden Spencer, with his bum crack constantly on display, makes an endearing comedic feast of his lascivious innocence. He’s a physical actor well suited to the direction. Bert LaBonte (Frank) as their social worker is as rock solid as always. Ronald Falk brings his great stage presence to Alfons and Emily Goddard still needs to find her feet in this, her first MTC production.
Given its new broad appeal and tailoring for the Australian market, I suspect this will be one of MTC’s biggest successes in a very uneven season. Ms Rabe has milked the comedy and made it a play that a mainstream audience can relate to and even love.
It’s easy to watch, and rarely challenges. For me, the multi-coloured style makes mental illness too black and white. I prefer the paler shades of truth in the original film.
Images: Hayden Spencer (Kjell Bjarne) and Darren Gilshenan (Elling) & Darren Gilshenan (Elling), Hayden Spencer (Kjell Bjarne) and Emily Goddard (Johanne). Photos © Jeff Busby.