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Saturday 15 March 2014

STC’S ‘TRAVELLING NORTH’ dissected by me

The thing about going to a play late in its season is that it’s almost pointless to have an opinion about it. Everyone has already decided whether they hated it or not and word around the traps is that for the most part, people did not like this play. I therefore went to see ‘Travelling North’ with very low expectations. I thought it would be a barking dog, not as bad as ‘Every Breath’, more a Colin Moody smearing excrement on a glass box instead of an obese John Howard masturbating over the ceramic-tiled-pool experience.

So it is with pleasure that I can report that ‘Travelling North’ exceeded my expectations. That’s not to say that I thought it was great. It was okay. I was not bored. There were plenty of things to redeem it and without the beige brick wall acting of Bryan Brown’s emotional and vocal range, it might have actually been a good play.

I will say this about Brown- he can play grumpy bastard with belief. Trouble is, I think he’s playing himself and whilst his character Frank has curmudgeon aplenty, there should be more to Frank than this and the only time his emotional state changed was via a phone call done as a voice over because I don’t think director Andrew Upton could trust Brown to consistently pull vulnerability out of the bag and had to resort to a pre-recorded state.

As a result of Brown’s flatline school of acting (complete with vocals fired out with little thought of timing or modulation), the plot of ‘Travelling North’ shifts away from protagonist Frank because we really don’t care about his plight or awakening and focuses the action squarely on the women of this play, who are working damn hard to make the best of it and should be congratulated for making it work at all. Frank is relegated to a bit player in his own play.

‘Travelling North’ therefore becomes an interesting historical piece on the burgeoning feminism of the early 1970’s. This is actually Frances’ (Alison Whyte) story. Whilst Frances commits to a relationship with a man twenty years her senior, where he sets the rules and location of their affair, against the wishes of her adult daughters who want her to stay in Melbourne and be their built-in support and babysitting network, who warn her of what could happen, Frances still goes and all those fears come to fruition. What we see is a world where traditions are split open and redefined. Women as carers, as servile and second-class, seen in not only Frances but her daughters Helen (Harriet Dyer), Sophie (Sara West) and even Frank’s daughter Joan (Emily Russell) are laid bare. When Sophie has to claw her way into higher education with no support from her professor husband or that Helen can only receive love and attention by having babies, it is a sad indictment that women are considered convenient more than competent. Even Joan tells her father Frank that his marriage to her mother was not the ideal that Frank remembers but a constant humiliation for her mother as she was voiceless and denigrated at Frank’s hands. Whilst all the men live in blissful ignorance of their own importance, the women are struggling for independence, affirmation and a place in which their voice counts.

This play reminds us of a time when financial independence for women was rare and it forced women into roles as homemakers, mothers and wives- unpaid and unappreciated and reliant on the kindness and support of the men in their lives. The other men in the play, local doctor Saul (Russell Kiefel) and neighbour Freddy (Andrew Tighe) support this thesis. Even though they are much more likeable than Frank, they offer Frances the opportunity to service their needs when Frank’s demise is imminent, knowing that she will have nothing when he goes.  When Frances has no choice to return to Frank, not for love but because she has “nowhere else to go”, we are firmly in a political and cultural conservative era, pre-Whitlam, sorely in need of social change and allowing us to reflect on how far we have come.

I commend the supporting cast, especially the comic timing of Dyer, Kiefel and Tighe, when his shorts weren’t stealing the scene. Although often relegated to playing archetypes, which is inherently Williamson, without the strength of the ensemble Brown would have had the play buried long before it was due.

I enjoyed David Fleischer’s set. Non-conventional and anti-naturalist but the levels of the stage certainly communicated the areas of comfort for each of the characters and they seemed to own their own parts of the stage. Frances travelling to each corner much more than the other characters also indicates her versatility of roles and the demands of the others on her and the fact that she is merely a visitor in each area and owns nothing herself. The more each character moved out of their area, the more uncomfortable they were- as was evidenced by Frank, whose prime raised northern corner was where he was most at home. The women also occupied the lower parts of the stage, their hierarchy evident throughout the play. 

Another nod to the costumes and if you didn’t know this play was set in the early 1970’s, the shorts, wigs and dresses drove it home with humour and accuracy.

I didn’t mind Upton’s choice to have his characters eavesdrop on the conversations taking place on stage, especially when it was about them. He made more of this with the women of the play and it made me think that the women were more invested in discovering information pertinent to their future as opposed to the men who had no reason to engage in these discussions and were able to make those decisions for themselves. The women were the passengers of their own destiny.

Anyhow, the season has reached its end and with 2014 seeming like the Year of Williamson with many more of his plays around the corner waiting for production in Sydney, it will be interesting to see how they compare to ‘Travelling North’. It won’t be the triumph of the STC season but I didn’t think it was as loathsome as reported. 

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