Directing a personal favourite

Hot on the heels of her role in His Girl Friday, Pamela Rabe spoke to Stephanie Convery about returning to MTC as a director.

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Award-winning actor and director, Pamela Rabe.
When Pamela Rabe was given the opportunity to program our 2012 season with Aidan Fennessy and Robyn Nevin, her first thought was, ‘Oh, I’d love to do “Elling”: again.’

Originally asked to direct the play for Sydney Theatre Company in 2009, Rabe fell in love with the script then and there. Based on an incredibly successful novel by Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen, the play follows the agoraphobic Elling and his equally socially-challenged flatmate Kjell as they leave their institution home for the big, wide – and scary – world. The novel spawned a series of films, the first of which was nominated for an Oscar. This version of the comedy about the oddest of odd couples, an adaptation by Simon Bent of the Norwegian screenplay by Petter Naess, was a hit in Sydney and on its regional tour.

Having directed it so recently, why did Rabe want to return to it so soon?

‘I had such a joyous experience, not only creating it for STC but just being in the company of those characters,’ she says. ‘I read the novel, I saw the film, I saw the sequels, but here Simon Bent has created a script in the English language that stands as a piece of comic writing in its own right.’

To create laughs from a story about two mentally ill men needs subtle comic skills, and Rabe was very keen to get her original star, Darren Gilshenan, to reprise the titular character.

‘It was such a perfect marriage of actor to piece with Darren Gilshenan,’ she said. ‘Elling is his role, and we vowed that if we had an opportunity to visit it again, we would do it.’

What was it about his performance as Elling that she loved so much?

‘Speaking as a performer myself, as well as a director, there will be few roles that seem like just the perfect dovetail fit with your clown,’ she says. ‘And Elling is that, I think, for Darren. He knew who this guy was. To watch that blossom in him, to watch him find that delicacy and complexity, the pathos and the wonderful humour in that role, was really delectable. I love the way he hones and works on his comedy. He’s got a great brain, but also extraordinary discipline and a great eye for detail – and truthful detail.’

‘It’s the nuance in that characterisation which is crucial,’ she explains. ‘It is anchored in something very traumatic, actually. It’s a great crisis in a man’s life. He’s somebody who has lived in the safety of this hermetically-sealed environment with his mother, and then his mother dies. He’s plunged into a major crisis that takes him into a mental healthcare facility. A comedy about mental illness requires you to have great compassion and empathy with these characters and nowhere a sense that we’re trying to make fun at their expense. Darren has a great gift for always staying inside that, but still letting us laugh.’

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Darren Gilshenan is Elling.
Rabe does not conceive of this as a reproduction of the STC show.

‘There are so many new creative artists involved in this production here at MTC,’ she says. ‘Darren and I are the only two who have done it before. It’s a completely new design team – sound, lights, staging – and the rest of the cast. Just by definition it will be a new interpretation. We’re also performing it in a new venue, in the Sumner, and Christina Smith, the Set and Costume Designer, and I have taken great care to re-imagine it so that it sits appropriately in that space.’

Ibsen aside, audiences may not be accustomed to seeing Norwegian plays on our main stages, but Rabe is enthusiastic about what Elling offers.

‘It’s placed in Norway, but these are people that we know,’ she says. ‘And I love that the fulcrum of the play, the nucleus of the play, is actually about Christmas. I grew up in Canada so it’s a distant memory to me: a snowy winter Christmas. It makes me go all gooey inside to think of Christmas trees and snow. Christmas means a lot for these two guys as well.’

“Elling”:, adapted by Simon Bent, is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner from 27 October.

This interview was first published in Scenes, MTC’s subscriber newsletter.

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