Travelling North

Travelling North

Noosa Arts Theatre

 4th April – 21st April

Reviewed by Mel White

I am a big fan of David Williamson:  he is one of Australia’s most enduring playwrights and I always find the content of his plays socially relevant.  In saying this, I have always maintained that undertaking a David Williamson play is a real challenge:  he is renowned for his political undertones found within a highly verbose text that investigates the ugly side of human nature and it is this verbosity that presents the challenge for any director.  How do you make so much dialogue interesting to watch! So it was with great interest (and morbid curiosity) that I went to see one of Williamson’s self-confessed favourites, Travelling North, which ran for three sell-out weeks at Noosa Arts Theatre.  Directed by Steven Tandy, this latest re-incarnation of Williamson’s classic struggles to make the dialogue interesting to watch.

Williamson’s plays focus heavily on human interrelationships and the complexities that come with them, and Travelling North is no exception.

The play revolves around themes of aging and obligations.  Main characters Frank and Frances have a twilight love affair and travel north to find a new life together away from burdensome family obligations.  Their escape is short lived, however, when Frances’ family issues and Frank’s ill health intrude on their idyll.  Whilst the content of this play is still highly relevant in today’s society, Tandy’s presentation of it is a little stale for my liking.

The action of the play is mostly limited to three locations:  Frank and Frances’ holiday getaway positioned at stage right; Helen’s (Frances’ daughter) house situated at upstage left and Saul’s surgery, cleverly divided by the mid-curtain, at downstage left. The use of set to represent these 3 locations enhances the realistic nature of the play and is well designed by George Courtney (Set Designer).  Scenic painter, Lyn Roberts, brings the northern idyll to life at stage right, with vibrant colours and a realistic depiction of a countryside view, whilst the chilly climes of Melbourne and Helen’s troubled personal life are simultaneously symbolised through the saddening blue hue of the walls of Helen’s house (at upstage left), coupled with a sterile, lacklustre decoration.  The set certainly presents a successful interpretation of time and place, offering the actors an effective springboard to bring the themes of the play to life. However, it feels as though Tandy’s direction of his actors within this hopeful set is lacking and this leads to the play’s downfall.

Actor movement within the set is somewhat limited and this renders Williamson’s work stagnant. Whilst this limited movement works well for the elderly characters of Frank and Frances (and is essential for the scenes where Frank’s health is rapidly deteriorating), this slowed tempo is applied throughout the whole play.  Tandy fails to recognise the much-needed changes in tempo and pace and this is particularly evident in the scenes involving Helen and Sophie.  Williamson appears to include these younger characters in his text to give a lift to the pensioner pace of the driving narrative: it’s a clever insertion by Williamson upon which Tandy fails to capitalise.

I found Xanthe Coward, as Sophie, to be completely under-utilised in this production.  As the lighter character, Sophie presents as pseudo comic relief from the unbearably self-absorbed Helen: she provides a softer edge to contrast Helen’s brashness.  Additionally, Sophie’s youthfulness and calm demeanour provide further contrast against the aging and petulant Frank.  She provides themes of hope and renewal to counteract the somewhat depressing themes of aging and inevitable death but Tandy’s direction does not allow for this counteraction.  He positions Coward awkwardly within in the set in most of her scenes; no more is this evident than in the scene where Sophie, Frances and Helen are in Helen’s living room, discussing Frances’ impending journey northbound.  Sophie and Helen verbalise their concerns regarding Frances’ departure yet Coward sits almost facing full front, with her back to the discussion, giving the appearance of disinterest, when in fact the dialogue suggests otherwise.

This genre of awkward positioning again presents itself when Sophie herself travels north to introduce her mother to the new addition in Sophie’s life:  her baby.  The scene is quite short but is nonetheless rendered useless by an obvious lack of direction, as Coward stands overlooking the baby’s bassinette, with next to no movement.  This lack of movement also spills over in the direction of Andree Stark in the role of Helen.

“Travelling North” is Stark’s debut as an actor and whilst it would be easy to place blame on her lack of stage experience, I firmly believe she has not been directed properly to really tease out her potential in this role.  Similarly to Coward, for a character that demands attention, Stark’s movement around the stage space is limited.  Helen is a very assertive and self-absorbed character but she also carries the continual sub-text of a deteriorating personal life.  Tandy does not effectively highlight this bubbling sub-narrative of a Sophie’s collapsing marriage, evident within Stark’s acting.  Her movement and gesture are too infrequent to suggest an inner turmoil and she is often presented much like a “talking head” – standing still on stage whilst delivering her dialogue.  For someone with such expansive theatre experience, Tandy should know better.

It is his lack of direction with these two, fine actors that really lets Williamson’s work down in this production.

The remaining actors in this production do a fine job in portraying their characters but I do feel that some of these actors are falling into the typecast category.  Tim Murfin is his usual superb self with his portrayal of the pontificating Frank, however; I feel that I have seen this performance many times before.  Stephen Moore, in the role of Saul, provides the much-needed comic relief and he certainly utilises his facial expression to its full potential to show his exasperation with Frank.  I did find, however, that Moore’s accent wavered from time to time.

Overall, Noosa Arts’ production of Travelling North appeals to older audiences who appreciate classic Williamson and will, no doubt, identify with the content.  However, I feel that director Steven Tandy fails in effectively bringing that content to life in an interesting way.  It’s a little too stale and slow-going for a more contemporary audience.


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