Direction: Ross Jolly (written by Simon Bent, based on the novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (June 30– July 24)
Elling has twice suffered postponement with Covid lockdown restrictions, cancelled altogether last year and then its opening week was delayed for this season given the temporary move to level 2 – meaning it opened to a social distanced audience. It is a play about a type of social distancing – the experience of its central characters is borne of isolation. What a relief for cast and crew to finally be able to stage it. Let’s call it a bonus then that the audience can draw on its own recent experiences – however more privileged – for having some contemporary understanding of a world feeling closer to isolation despite all its interconnectivity.
Adapted from a novel, translated to English, but still set in Norway, Elling tells the tale of the titular character (played by Jeff Kingsford-Brown) and his roommate-turned-friend Kjell Bjarne (embodied by Gavin Rutherford). They are our Vladimir and Estragon, though this play is rather more than a two-hander with thanks in particular to Bronwyn Turei – flitting effortlessly between four distinct characters (nurse, waitress, performance poet and upstairs neighbour) and some fine work also by Steven Ray as enigmatic and urbane poet Alfons Jorgensen, and William Kircher as arm’s-length social worker Frank Asli (and a cameo moment as another of the performance poets).
Elling and Kjell meet in state care – both have vulnerable, nervous dispositions, both have been cocooned in this life and though their souls will show resilience they rest in a fragile state. They are not exactly similar but they are similarly not for this world. Not without a very soft fight, not without support at least. Not without some nervous introductions, and the carefully distanced handholding of a society that promotes a guided version of personal responsibility.
Norway’s setting allows for us to view this with some detachment – to see the mental-health story, which is the central component – play out in a dream-like state; we might compare it to our rules, regulations and underfunded resources only after. In the moment we are seeing a fresh approach, a compassionate approach unfolding. We also see the harsh judgements of some of the minor characters (the nurse in the opening, the social worker) as projections from our two main protagonists. Is this how they’re seen in the world?
The two minor characters that offer only kindness and enthusiasm, rather than judgment, are themselves wounded. Susceptible to judgment. They have experienced loss and are rebuilding their lives. The kindness they show Kjell and Elling is doubly rewarded.
The second half of the play does pile in a few happy coincidences, a few quick leaps in the action – which would work better in the pages of a novel or on screen – but the decisions made by the director and actors here remain exquisite.
I loved this play. I felt such warmth from it. I thought – often – of movies that offered comparable experiences. Bad Boy Bubby with its isolated “mummy’s boy”, Henry Fool with its elevation of poetry as the secret art of the soul. And I let the exquisite performances of this play guide me through the night. Thinking about it long after and into the next day. I feel like Elling is the absolute right kind of feel-good for right now. And its year postponement has, oddly, only helped it to foster the right kind of connection. Gentle humour, lovely hues.