There is no doubt that David Williamson is among Australia’s most prolific playwrights. Some say he is our best, whatever “best” may mean in creative terms. Travelling North has been called his “finest play” (Concise Companion to Theatre in Australia). It is indeed finely crafted.
Where many Williamson pieces are known for their “raucous wit … fast moving scatological dialogue and recognisable social types, brilliantly seized and satirised” (Oxford Companion to Australian Literature), Travelling North is for the most part gently Chekhovian in its humour and insights. While most are contemporaneously set, Travelling North was written in 1979 but is set in the pre-Whitlam early ’70s, giving more point and poignancy to its generational attitudes and conflicts.
These are skilfully reversed with the “unblessed” relationship between the ex-communist now socialist, late-middle-aged, ailing, anally-retentive, slide-rule-wielding Frank (Rob Simpson) and his early middle-aged, apolitical, tolerant, patient and all-forgiving lover Frances (Helen Royle) being seriously questioned and tested by her daughters, whose own marital relationships are revealed as suffering serious to terminal disabilities.
Williamson reminds us that love doesn’t need a reason by providing no background to the Frank/Frances relationship. In retirement they are simply travelling in the “kombi” from the cold south to the warmth of the north. Frank’s failing health curtails the journey. They take up residence and their developed friendships with barby-building, archly-conservative neighbour Freddy (Warren Wolfe) and Frank’s sorely tested GP Saul (Damian Smith) provides much of the comedy.
This Sandgate Theatre production by David Corrie, assisted by June Tretheway, is a brave attempt at a deceptively difficult play to stage. Its structure as a series of short scenes in various major locations is more film-like than theatrical. The use of multiple fixed and cramped realistic box sets restricted movement to a sit-com minimum and created awkward angles for interaction between the characters. Open “suggestive” staging may have served the play’s purpose with more effect and assisted in avoiding the lengthy delays between scenes. These were aggravated by timing the changes to music rather than the actors’ readiness for the next event. In addition to breaking the play’s dramatic flow, I estimate scene changes added about 15 to 20 minutes to playing time and watching actors poised in half light waiting for a music bridge to end certainly made those audience members I was nearest frustrated and restless.
Despite these difficulties the cast brought a bonded sense of ensemble to the text. But this too is deceptive in its surface simplicity. These people are you and me, our mothers and fathers and sisters and neighbours, alive with all the complex and secret uncertainties and insecurities, feelings and phobias we mask in our daily rituals and the seeming “ordinariness” of our relationships. This is the Chekhovian quality of this wonderfully warm and witty piece.
Helen Royle as Frances stood out in these regards. She gave us depth, and warmth and genuine humanity. And when at play’s end, she is free of the ties of blood family, at peace, and elects to continue travelling north, our sense of her self-realisation is set to travel with her.