In the MTC’s Elling, director Pamela Rabe uses mental illness as a platform to explore the anxieties of human individuals. She explains to Sarah Braybrooke that it is not ‘about’ mental illness at all.
Set in Norway, Elling follows two protagonists with mental health problems as they struggle to find their way in the world. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it sounds like heavy going. But as the show's director, Pamela Rabe, explains, you would be wrong.“'Norwegian' and 'comedy' are two words that you don't often see in the same sentence,” she laughs. “But yeah, it's a Norwegian comedy.”
The show has taken a circuitous journey to arrive in Melbourne, from its genesis as a series of Norwegian books through to an Oscar-nominated screen version and two stage adaptations. After staging the play in Sydney in 2009, Rabe has finally brought it to Melbourne as part of a season that she has co-programmed at the MTC.
Rabe outlines the story. “It's about two unlikely friends who meet in a kind of extended mental health care facility as they're both dealing with crises in their lives. One of them, the eponymous hero Elling, has arrived there as a man in his mid-40s, who has lived all of his life with his mother. [He's had] certain issues – fear of going out, fear of answering the telephone, lots of things – but lived rather happily in a well-balanced world with his mum.” When his mother dies he ends up in the facility and meets Kjell, a 40-year-old sex- and food-obsessed virgin. “They get put in a room together, and strike up a very unusual friendship,” says Rabe. Eventually the welfare system moves them to an apartment of their own, on the condition that they prove they can lead normal, independent lives. The rest of the play follows them trying to do just that against obstacles that Rabe says can sometimes seem insurmountable.
Despite following eccentric characters who are going through a process of institutionalisation and rehabilitation, Rabe is firm that the play is not principally 'about' mental illness. “It's a story about friendship,” she says. “It's a comedy about the anxieties of living in a modern world and it's also a story about finding your voice within all that and feeling like you belong… It's about what it is to be human, and it's a very affectionate, funny, and a little confronting at times look at that.”
These are themes that Rabe thinks are universal. “Particularly in the world we live in now, where many of us feel trapped by our jobs and by the demands of family and society. [I think we're] feeling more and more encroached upon by political correctness and taboos,” she says.
It might cross cultural boundaries, but it has its Nordic charms too. Rabe mentions playwright Henrik Ibsen as a touchstone for the issues that Elling explores. “Some of the great stories of modern drama... have the same preoccupations about being an individual, trapped in a house of your own making,” she says. “Hedda Gabler and Nora in A Doll's House seem to play with some of those same themes, so it's not a surprise to me that it's a story born in Norway.”
WHEN & WHERE: Monday 29 October to Saturday 8 December, MTC, Sumner Theatre