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.”

Pamela Rabe | EllingPhoto by Alan Pryke /

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.”

WHAT: Elling

WHEN & WHERE: Monday 29 October to Saturday 8 December, MTC, Sumner Theatre


MTC Interview (03 October 2012)

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.’

Pamela Rabe | Elling RehearsalsOriginally 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 Ambjörnsen, 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.’

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.



Actor Pamela Rabe is swapping roles to direct the next MTC show, writes Sally Bennett

Being loud — and possibly a bit bossy — has worked out well for actor-director Pamela Rabe.

Perhaps it was growing up in a household of eight children, or being the lone Canadian expat in a sea of Aussie actors, or the striking presence of her long willowy frame, but there’s no overlooking Rabe in a rehearsal room.

For her next role, the much-loved and award-winning actor has stepped of stage to be the boss, directing the next Melbourne Theatre Company production, Elling.

It’s a natural fit for an actor who admits to being a “pretty noisy presence” at rehearsals, making a “vocal contribution to how I think things should be done”.

“But I would hope that’s creative,” she says.

It will be Rabe’s second go at Elling, which she originally directed for the Sydney Theatre Company two years ago.

The only thing she has imported from that production is lead actor Darren Gilshenan. The rest of the cast and creative team have been built from the ground up in Melbourne.

Rabe says she couldn’t resist revisiting the “joyous” play when she was invited to be one of three guest programmers for the MTC’s 2012 season, alongside the esteemed Robyn Nevin and Aldan Fennessy.

Pamela Rabe | Ellie 2012

Co-incidentally, it was Nevin, while artistic director of the STC, who first pushed Rabe into the director’s chair, having decided many years earlier that it was an excellent fit.

“I grizzled and bucked and resisted and finally Robyn said, ‘Just do it!’ and I did my first Daniel Keene play and it went on from there,” Rabe says.

“Robyn and I had been talking about it for some time. Other people had been talking to me about it for some time.

“A lot of probably exacerbated actors were sort of saying, ‘Have you thought about directing?’ to get me to shut up.”

One-on-one in a meeting room at the MTC, the boisterous persona seems difficult to imagine of a woman who radiates a dignified calmness and considered authority.

Rabe is indeed a powerful presence, as proved by her acting accolades, including this year’s Helpmann Award for best female actor in a musical for Grey Gardens.

Winning the prestigious prize coincided with the first day of rehearsals for Elting, which has been an all-consuming and gratifying experience.

“I just so enjoy being in a room with these characters. They’re all so beautiful,” Rabe says.

“It’s a very unusual play in that when the lights came up in Sydney people would just stay and talk to each other, people who didn’t know each other.

“It broke down barriers in even that social environment.”

Elling is English playwright Simon Bent’s adaptation of what was first a Norwegian novel, then a successful foreign film, then translated into an English play. Through two misfits — Elling (who lived with his now dead mother) and Kjell (an institutionalised 40-year-old virgin) — it explores the universally popular theme of an oddball couple trying to find their way in the world.

“Where these guys go and where they take us is magical,” Rabe says.

“They’re so real and so funny that you get swept up and invested in their adventures,” “There’s nothing that they struggle with that every one of us doesn’t deal with on a daily basis.

“It’s a sweet play because it’s true and it’s full of yearning and it’s full of fun.”

Elling will run at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, November 1 to December 8.
Book it: phone 8688 0800 or visit

Source: Sunday Herald Sun | October 28, 2012

Darren Gilshenan during the Rehearsals:
What has Pamela Rabe brought to this production that you might feel is distinctive?
Having an actor to work with. Understanding that these characters are quite complex and really require a lot of character analysis. Pamela is such a great actor herself; she really knows how to talk the acting lingo, and how to really get inside characters, and how to create characters that are three-dimensional. Always looking at ‘yes you want something but what’s the obstacle that’s stopping you from getting it?’ Rather than making anything simple always looking at the forces that work against it. 3D characters are, a lot of the time, to do with inner and outer wants. On the outside you show the world what you think you want them to see, but inside there is something else driving it. Yo0u want the world to see you as successful, so you dress up in your suit and you present yourself, but inside there’s a person crying for recognition. So having an actor as a director who loves to talk about the psychology of character rather than necessarily the shapes, the blocking and the bigger pictures; which she’s all over as well, but having some fascinating talks about character psychology which I’m finding really enjoyable.

ARTWORKS | Presented by Amanda Smith

Pamela Rabe was born in Canada and, over the past 25 years or so in Australia, she’s played everything from Richard III in the marathon production The War of the Roses (in Sydney and Perth earlier this year) to the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz in Melbourne. But of late she’s turned her hand to directing. Last year, it was a one-act Daniel Keene play for the Sydney Theatre Company and now, also for the Sydney Theatre Company, a play called Elling.

Source: | 14 June 2009

Photos by Alan Pryke, Rodger Cummins, Ves (v_musings)