Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington
29/06/2021 - 24/07/2021
A Life Affirming Comedy
A charming, funny celebration of the simple things in life, Elling centres on sensitive and smart Mummy’s boy Elling and his new roommate, the uncouth and a little hopeless Kjell – The Odd Couple of Oslo – a pair of confused souls taking their first steps in the outside world after years of isolated institutional life.
Elling charts the bumps and stumbles as this pair makes their way back into the world we take for granted – building friendships, becoming accustomed to all things ordinary and starting to experience the pleasure of the everyday. We share their joy as they discover the richness of life in the ‘real’ world. But they must now re-assimilate successfully or face a return to State care… permanently.
Based on the cult Norwegian film and skillfully adapted by BAFTA Award winning English playwright Simon Bent, Elling is a sensitive, eccentric and unsentimental play. A parable about the nature of happiness, the need to be open and how all our lives would be improved by more poetry, more sex and more pork with gravy.
‘A rare treat … the most blissfully funny and touching evening I have had in the theatre for ages’ — The Guardian
‘Elling brings hearty dollops of humour, charm and warmth’ — Stuff
‘It’s charming, quirky, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny’ — Theatre New York
OPENING DELAYED BY COVID-19 LEVEL 2
Circa One, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington Waterfront
29 June – 24 July 2021
Preview 25 June
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm
Fri – Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm
$25 – $52
Note: $42 ‘Concession’ price (Community Services Card, Gold Card or student ID required)
Proudly sponsored by Mary and Peter Biggs CNZM & Christopher Finlayson
ELLING: Jeff Kingsford-Brown
KJELL BJARNE: Gavin Rutherford
ALFONS JORGENSEN: Steven Ray
FRANK ASLI / POET: William Kircher
REIDUN NORDSLETTEN / GUNN / JOHANNE / POET: Bronwyn Turei
Set Design by: Andrew Foster
Lighting Design by: Marcus McShane
Costume Design by: Sheila Horton
Sound Design by: Ross Jolly and Niamh Campbell-Ward
Stage Manager: Eric Gardiner
Technical Operator: Niamh Campbell Ward
Lead Builder: John Hodgkins
Set Crew: Jay Lewis,Jacob Banks,Sean Dugdale-Martin, Bjorn Aslund, Hakaia Daly,Mitchell Sigley
Marketing: Brianne Kerr
Marketing Design: Rose Miller
Photography: Stephen A’Court
Videography: James Cain
Box Office Manager: Sophie Laurenson
Front of House Manager: Harish Purohit
Technical Manager: Deb McGuire
Marketing Manager: Shalesh Vasan
Marketing Assistant: Amy Atkins
Circa Administrator: Georgia Davenport
May well reach its potential
Review by John Smythe 30th Jun 2021
It has often been observed that inside every man there is a little boy, say six to nine, whose feelings, thoughts and impulsive urges flow like lava below the surface of what we call adult behaviour. Fear, desire, anger, joy, delusions of grandeur and persecution, fantastic plans – they might erupt at any time if not capped by ‘maturity’. Likewise feelings of failure and shame, the need to crawl away and hide, or to simply give up may prevail, if not moderated by a resilience born of experience.
All these dimensions of being human are touched on in Elling, as we observe how two institutionalised Norwegian men venture into their own state-sponsored apartment in Oslo and attempt to cope in the ‘real’ world. They were institutionalised because fate intervened in their ‘normal’ progress to maturity and now they are deemed ready to make their own way in society, albeit under the arms-length supervision of a social worker.
The play, by British playwright and screenwriter Simon Bent, is based on the Norwegian film, Elling (Oscar-nominated for a Best Foreign Film in 2001) which in turn was based on Brødre i Blodet (Blood Brothers), the fourth of Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s tetralogy of late 20th century novels featuring the titular Elling.
Born soon after his father died, Elling lived with his mother until she too died and he was deemed unable to fend for himself. An inveterate jotter in his notebook, he calls himself a “mummy’s boy” and writes about the life around him in ways that could either be offensively judgemental or potent flights of fiction. His language suggests his mother fed him a solid diet of biblical and ancient Greek myths that instilled anxiety and a protective quiver of moralistic phrases.
In contrast to the over-protected Elling, 45 year-old Kjell Bjarne was a neglected child who has become obsessed with women, food and old cars. We might assume he’d be ‘street-wise’ until it becomes apparent he’s been very much on the outside looking in at life – albeit with more tremulous anticipation than his fearfully buttoned-down friend.
The play begins as they become room-mates then leaps two years to their imminent departure from the institution to the apartment. There is a strong sense that subjective experience is being dramatised but whose is not quite clear. Elling is the first to break the fourth wall, briefly, much later Kjell offers another brief direct address, then a new character, Alfons Jorgensen, narrates to us out of the blue.
While not a consistent device, this suggests a dramaturgical intention to establish the sort of connection with the audience that I imagine the novels achieved (perhaps each chapter had a different narrator; I’m just guessing here). Of course direct address, asides and eye-contact connection have been key conventions in theatre for centuries, with that ‘fourth wall’ idea being relatively recent.
So as this Ross Jolly-directed production unfolds, I can’t help wondering if a touch of vaudeville, or even European clown conventions (cf Slava’s Snow Show or Thom Monckton shows like The Artist) would draw us more deeply into the characters’ experiences. Certainly Elling and Kjell, as ‘innocents abroad’, share more clown characteristics than not, and the supporting roles do seem to be filtered through the lenses of their perceptions. Or is it the somewhat enigmatic Alfons – whose red velvet jacket could imply a cabaret MC – who has brought this story to life, having purloined Elling’s notebook for a period of time.
The script dances through time in ways that are common in novels and film, and flits over such prosaic details as how co-dependent Elling and Kjell were prepared for their ‘independence’, and how they manage such domestic imperatives as shopping, cooking and cleaning. Their world view is childlike and that is what we look in on.
It has to be noted that this first public performance, to a socially distance Level 2 audience, follows two Covid-19 postponements – the first last year, the other last week – and the southerly storm conditions may have depleted this modest audience even more. So it has the feel of a final run-through rather than the usual opening night energised by a full and warmly-disposed house.
Jeff Kingsford-Brown meets the challenge of making the intrinsically nervous and reticent Elling as fluent and eloquent as the script needs him to be – articulating, I imagine, what would have been inner monologue and narrative exposition in the novel.
Gavin Rutherford embraces the “Orangutan” descriptor discovered in Elling’s notebook, navigating Kjell Bjarne’s highs and lows with an ease that belies the work required to reach those emotional landmarks.
There are moments of understanding, pleasure and pathos that could land more profoundly than they do in this run-through. Perhaps the all-important ‘get it’ moment-of-nothing – where everything happens (fundamental to all comedy conventions) – has been over-ridden this night by a directive to bring it in at two hours (plus interval), at the expense of stronger audience engagement and empathy. A missed moment involving the fate of a lovingly made Christmas present is just one example.
That said, Bronwyn Turei hits every emotional and therefore comedic mark to compel our engagement with her quartet of characters: the institution’s mean-spirited nurse, a flighty waitress and a ‘modern’ poet – written as cyphers but humanized by Turei – and Reidun Nordsletten, the soon-to-be solo mother from upstairs whose growing relationship with Kjell creates impassioned crises all round. It is a wordless moment as Reidun, upstage, about to leave, compels the empathy and pathos this production needs more of.
As the social worker Frank Asli, William Kircher keeps us guessing as to whether we’re seeing him as he really is or filtered through the eyes of his fish-out-of-water charges: somewhat menacing and at risk of abusing his power. In contrast, or perhaps as an extension of how Elling and Kjell perceive him, Kircher also plays an angry poet to the hilt.
Poetry becomes Elling’s salvation – or was it his hidden talent all along – discovered by Steven Ray’s urbane poet, Alfons Jorgensen. His loneliness and writer’s block since the death of his wife just sit as a stated fact rather than something we feel in his being, which makes his rejuvenation on discovering Elling’s talent less of a contrast than it could be. Similarly his rusting Buick and cabin in the hills seem like crammed-in story elements rather than harbingers of renewal and expanded horizons.
My guess is the stage adaptation from a film based on a novel has not met all the inherent challenges which therefore flow into its live-theatre staging.
Andrew Foster’s set design serves the production’s need to jump-cut through time and locations and Marcus McShane’s lighting design facilitates our awareness of place as well as, on occasion, subjective states of mind. Eric Gardiner’s deft stage management and Niamh Campbell Ward’s tech operating seamlessly facilitate the smooth transitions. From headwear and knitwear to underwear, Sheila Horton’s on-point Scandi costume designs enrich our perceptions of all nine characters.
Instead of using ‘own voices’ in a play set in a foreign land, slightly wobbly Scandi accents are employed for Elling, Kjell Bjarne and Frank Asli with other roles reaching more for standard or regional English accents. I suppose this arises from the rhythms in the dialogue but it feels rather retro to me.
Post-show chats with acquaintances in the foyer lead to a consensus that Elling would play quite differently to a full, warm and responsive audience. It certainly touches on topical themes like coming out of lockdown and understanding mental illness, not to mention the classic ‘what is normal?’ conundrum. Given the space to breathe and land its moments, this production may well reach its potential.
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