Further on and further up: STC’s Travelling North

The idea of ‘going north’ is firmly rooted in the Australian psyche. Analogous perhaps with the great (American) road trip and the immense body of literature that has spawned from it, from Kerouac’s On The Road and Nabokov’s Lolita, to home-grown classics such as Michael Gow’s The Kid and Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (albeit partly in reverse), as well as the life-affirming Bran Nue Dae. There is the myth of the bush, the untameable wetlands and inhospitable red desert; the cattle-owners, the crocodile wrestlers, “the serial killers, salt-of-the-earth stalwarts, bigots [and] drag queens,” as Ailsa Piper writes in the program. Simply put, “the north is epic,” just as its allure is irresistible, and not just in a physical literal sense of ‘going north’.
The road trip has long been associated with coming-of-age stories and journeys of self-discovery. So it is in David Williamson’s Travelling North, presented here by Sydney Theatre Company. And while Williamson’s protagonists might be a generation or two older than most other literary road-trippers, the process of change and discovery, of soul-searching and path-finding, of going deeper in and further up, still speaks to our restless twenty-first century mindset as much as it did in 1979 when it premiered.

David Fleischer’s wooden slatted rise becomes the perfect abstraction of Frank and Frances’ journey. Evocative of long highways, the flat horizon, the gentle swell of sand-dunes, a wide encompassing verandah, the slats on a venetian blind, a compass point, the shape of the state of Queensland, it becomes everything from a suburban Melbourne house to a doctor’s surgery to the northern property where Frank and Frances end up, and is a kind of cousin to Michael Scott Mitchell’s design for Storm Boy in the same space last year. Lit with a distinctly Australian light – liquid gold, drenchingly rich, the colour of a summer’s day – Nick Schlieper’s illumination is fulsome yet sensitively deployed; with its burnished gold and cerulean blue washes, it reminds me of productions of Michael Gow’s Away.
Williamson’s script is fast-moving and economical, and moves effortlessly from one location to another with the skill of a master dramatist, and perhaps owes more than a passing debt to the way a screenplay works. There are some wonderful scenes, both dramatic and light, emotional and gently comedic, yet they are never overplayed or played for laughs. In the hands of director Andrew Upton, Travelling North’s first act flies by in almost forty minutes; Act Two, however, clocks in at a full sixty minutes, and perhaps feels longer though by no means worse-off because of its emotional and dramatic punch. Williamson’s scenes are peppered with some beautifully scathing one-liners, but they are thankfully never milked for laughs, instead played with a caustic wit and sharp tongue.
The cast are all on fine form. Bryan Brown’s Frank is all bluster and swagger, someone used to having their own way. In Alison Whyte’s Frances however, he doesn’t so much find his match as his opposite. There’s something of his Bruce Kendall from Beautiful Kate in his Frank, the old bastard doing his damndest to not let his ailing body get the better of him. Alison Whyte is tremendous as Frances, and there is a girlish capriciousness to her that perhaps belies her character’s age. Despite being a late-in-the-process replacement for an injured Greta Scacchi, she is only on-the-book in one scene, deep in Act Two. Like Frank, she’s not proud of thing she’s done, but she too lives  it, deals with it, tries to atone for it in a way. Her daughters, Helen and Sophie (played by Harriet Dyer and Sara West, respectively) are perhaps the Reagan and Goneril of the piece, though their similarities are never forced, their needs and struggles never serve to vilify or demonise them. Where Sophie is more career-focused, Helen is determined to do the best by her family even if it is falling apart around her. Emily Russell, as Frank’s daughter Joan, is perhaps underused dramatically-speaking, but she nevertheless brings a humanity and a lived-in-ness to her character. Andrew Tighe’s Freddy, with his proclivity for short shorts, is perhaps the comic-relief of the piece, the Fool to Frank’s Lear, while Russell Kiefel’s Saul (Frank’s doctor) is the necessary voice of caution.
There is something vaguely Shakespearean to all of Williamson’s work, from Don’s Party, The Club and The Removalists, to Travelling North and the recent Rupert, both with regards to his output and style. Like Shakespeare, he trades in stereotypes though they never descend into caricatures; there is the mix of high and low, intellectual and domestic, humble and high-minded, but his work never seems to be anything other than ultimately human. And while there are the obvious intended similarities to Shakespeare’s King Lear, they are never forced; rather, Lear is merely an analogous framework upon which Williamson hangs his story. The equivalent to Lear’s mad-scene on the heath is beautifully and poignantly played here by Brown, wrapped in a blanket, gesturing wildly to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the radio. Rage, he seems to be yelling wordlessly to the heaves, rage against the dying of the light.
The Wharf 1 theatre is perhaps the closest theatre in terms of shape (at least to my knowledge) to the Belvoir (née Nimrod) corner in which Travelling North was first performed upon in 1979, and it feels a natural fit for this play: large enough to house a sizeable audience as well as David Fleischer’s set, yet small enough to still feel intimate and close enough that we become part of the story. “To travel north [becomes] to expand… to head toward the possibility of a larger, freer version of the hemmed-in southern self. It [is] to choose wildness,” as Ailsa Piper writes.

Theatre playlist: 3. Going North, Missy Higgins

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