Very recently, one of my esteemed colleagues from the Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle, Diana Simmonds, pronounced post’s Oedpipus Schmoedipus an orgiastic bloodbath, dead on arrival; an early contender for worst play of the year. Well, Diana, I think the ante in that category has been well-and-truly upped, with the arrival of a resuscitated David Williamson, in the form of Travelling North.
With 20:20 hindsight and the filter of time, it’s a rather more modest play than many would have it, which is particularly ironic given its pretence to transcend the merely nostalgic. Written in 1979, it lacks both the intensity and incisiveness of what I regard as Williamson’s finest works, which include Don’s Party and The Removalists, both of which remain unsurpassed in the prodigious Williamson canon. These were and are the plays that make Williamson Williamson; a six-foot-seven tall poppy, icon and national treasure.
The reason, perhaps, Travelling North doesn’t reach the dizzy emotional tenor of the other two is it’s more personal and biographical, based loosely on an autumnal romance between Williamson’s wife’s mother and a rather more elderly gentleman. Nonetheless, woven into the text is the usual Williamson wit, which, at its best, really cuts to the quick, albeit in that notoriously unsubtle, all-Australian way, that falls just this side of hamfisted. There’s also uncommon empathy with people. Though perhaps not all people: right-wingers are dismissed and belittle.
Williamson has remained his mother-in-law’s real-life romance via Frank (Bryan Brown) and Frances (Alison Whyte, picking-up the script Greta Scacchi dropped on the rehearsal room floor, before she ran out the door). Had I been Scacchi, I would’ve bolted, too: this production ranks little above amateur and, in saying that, I’m aware of slandering many fine amateur productions.
It’s hard to know where to focus my comprehensive disdain, but we might as well start with David Fleischer’s set. Yes, the constant temporal and geographical shifts in the play present challenges (cinematic backdrops might’ve, for example, solved that problem) and, in and of itself, the stepped, angular deck is pleasingly architectural. As well, a shack somewhere in the deep north is evoked, with limited success. But it’s otherwise dry, heartless and empty. We might intellectualise and ennoble this as counterpoint to the essential beating, sympathetic heart of the play; or an expression of the burgeoning, alienating relationship problems gradually unfurled. We might. But we won’t. It’s just off-putting. And while costume reflects the sartorial eccentricities and fashion travesties of the late 1960s and early ’70s, they lean too far towards parody. This isn’t The Wharf Revue. Or School Dance.
Enter Brown. It’s a while since I recall seeing him on a stage and, as my companion put it, I really wanted him to “win”. But win he does not. Poor, old Bryan might as well be poor, old Frank. He looks and sounds like the typed pages of the original script. You can almost hear his mind whirring as he brings line after line to it. There are small redemptions throughout the course of the play: a short, introductory scene with Frank’s new neighbour, Freddy (Andrew Tighe), has Brown almost at his naturalistic best and a recorded telephone conversation between Frank and Frances is a throwaway tour de force of longing, sadness and regret. But, regrettably, these peak moments, of undeniable excellence, are outweighed by a performance that’s inexcusably, unbelievably, incredibly lightweight. Or would be, until you realise Brown has only ever been in four plays, despite having made about 60 films. Perhaps it’s why he seems so nervous and unsure of himself, for much or most of the play. It might sound disingenuous and condescending, but I found myself feeling sorry for him, being put through and putting himself through this unnecessary challenge, in with he falls so comprehensively short.
Sometimes, the entire production seems jinxed. There was Scacchi’s 11th-hour withdrawal and, just the other night, a fire. The atmosphere is uncomfortable in the theatre and it has little or nothing to do with the play itself, I reckon. And, of course, bad as Brown is, the real kick in the pants must go to Andrew Upton, whose casting thoroughness runs to bumping into Brown and thinking, “oh, yeah!”. The fact is Brown is completely miscast. First of all, he might be getting towards the right age, but he’s still a fit, lithe bugger, who doesn’t look his age.
Beside him, Whyte’s Frances is adequate. At least she seems more certain of the lines, even though she has less reason to be, having had far less rehearsal time. Neither Brown nor Whyte convince at all as older people in love. There’s no chemistry or palpable emotion. Much as I love her, Harriet Dyer’s trademark mannerisms begin to grate as the production wears on and she plays her Gonerilesque role, as Frances’ younger daughter Helen, a little too much as parody. Mind you, with that wig and the contrived wardrobe, what is she to do? And even with this, she’s still the most interesting and compelling player. Sara West isn’t bad, but remains undistinguished, as Frances’ elder, less shrew-like daughter Sophie. Russell Kiefel overcomes a stumbling, bumbling initial scene with Brown to make fairly good as Saul, Frank’s bog ordinary, but tolerant and loyal GP. Both Emily Russell, as Franks’ daughter Joan, and Tighe as Freddy, deserve better company and, probably bigger parts.
If Upton wasn’t Upton … well, the phone might have stopped ringing after this. Mind you, Benedict Andrews survived Every Breath. And Andrew is, well, Andrew. I yi yi.