BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The ac­tors re­vis­it­ing a David Wil­liamson play about an older cou­ple find it has a spe­cial res­o­nance, writes Grace Blacket

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

RE­HEARSALS for Trav­el­ling North have paused for lunch and Greta Scac­chi is teas­ing Bryan Brown across the ta­ble. ‘‘ It’s ex­cit­ing for all the old bid­dies in the au­di­ence to have a lit­tle fan­tasy about you! It’s nice, isn’t it? He’s got a lit­tle bit of white, a lit­tle bit too much hair on top,’’ she says with a laugh as she points to Brown’s full head of hair.

Scac­chi and Brown, two ac­tors with long pedi­grees in film and the­atre, are per­form­ing to­gether for the first time in the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany’s re­vival of David Wil­liamson’s Trav­el­ling North. They play Frank and Frances, a cou­ple who move from Mel­bourne to a ram­shackle cot­tage in sub­trop­i­cal Tweed Heads, and it’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent they are en­joy­ing them­selves.

‘‘ It’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween work­ing and a cof­fee break,’’ Scac­chi says. Brown agrees. Re­hears­ing with Scac­chi and di­rec­tor An­drew Up­ton, he says, has been, ‘‘ re­ally easy. I mean ex­cep­tion­ally easy.’’

It may be the first time their paths have crossed pro­fes­sion­ally, but it’s ob­vi­ous the pair have known each other ‘‘ for a num­ber of years’’. Scac­chi laughs at Brown’s del­i­cacy. ‘‘ A num­ber of years? That’s so sub­tle. That’s so nicely put. More like 30!’’

With his sto­ry­teller’s knack for spin­ning a yarn, Brown is a nat­u­ral choice for Frank, a charm­ing, opin­ion­ated bug­ger with a zest for life and a dodgy heart. ‘‘ Frank’s a very alive bloke. What bloody an­noys him so much,’’ Brown slams his hand on the ta­ble for em­pha­sis, ‘‘ is that he gets crook.’’ Scac­chi might be best known from her younger days as a screen vixen, but at 53 she con­tin­ues to ex­ude a quiet beauty, even ra­di­ance, well­suited to Frances, the enig­matic ro­man­tic who falls for Frank.

Brown ap­proaches new roles hands-on: ‘‘ I’m a bit like a panel-beater, I bash and burn and then the pol­ish­ing, the un­der­stand­ing comes — I need to not have that f . . king book in my hand.’’ Scac­chi’s prepa­ra­tion is much more re­laxed: ‘‘ I just float around ig­nor­ing it and hope along the way it will stick,’’ she says.

Scac­chi’s ca­reer on stage and screen has spanned more than three decades. Sul­try screen per­for­mances in Heat and Dust and Pre­sumed In­no­cent made her a Hol­ly­wood star, but lately Scac­chi has been more vis­i­ble on stage, ap­pear­ing in A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic at the The­atre du Chatelet in Paris in 2010 and as Bette Davis in Bette and Joan in Lon­don in 2011. For the past 20 years she has em­braced the ru­ral life in the English coun­try­side, where she lives with Mat­teo, her 15-year-old son with Carlo Man­tegazza. ‘‘ I thought it was a good place to bring up chil­dren — now I’m just han­ker­ing to be in the city,’’ Scac­chi says.

In con­trast to Scac­chi’s re­cent tra­jec­tory, film and tele­vi­sion roles have con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate Brown’s act­ing ca­reer. Af­ter shar­ing the stage with Colin Friels in a 2011 pro­duc­tion of Ross Mueller’s com­edy drama Ze­bra! he had no plans to tread the boards again any­time soon. ‘‘ I’d said to [STC artis­tic di­rec­tor] An­drew [Up­ton], ‘ Nah, I won’t do a play for 19 years.’ ’’

It was the ex­cite­ment of see­ing Neil Arm­field’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed pro­duc­tion of Se­cret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel, that made Brown itch for the stage again. He ap­proached Up­ton in the Syd­ney The­atre lobby af­ter the open­ing night per­for­mance, de­mand­ing, ‘‘ Got any plays? I want to do a play!’’ Up­ton sug­gested Trav­el­ling North, an as­sured, el­e­gant work first per­formed in 1979. The drama was in­spired by Wil­liamson’s mother-in-law, who, to the shock of her daugh­ters, de­cided to move up the coast with her older lover.

Trav­el­ling North lacks the youth­ful rage of The Re­moval­ists and the con­tem­po­rary ‘‘ talk­ing points’’ of Wil­liamson’s more re­cent plays. And al­though Trav­el­ling North is set in the lead-up Gough Whit­lam’s 1972 ‘‘ It’s time’’ vic­tory at the polls, the heated dis­cus­sions be­tween Frank and his con­ser­va­tive neigh­bour Fred­die re­main sec­ondary to Frances and Frank’s ro­mance.

It will be Brown’s first stab at a Wil­liamson work. ‘‘ Shame on you!’’ jokes Scac­chi, who per­formed in Noth­ing Per­sonal, a new Wil­liamson of­fer­ing, at Syd­ney’s En­sem­ble The­atre in 2011-12. Renowned for his par­tic­u­lar brand of Aussie bloke in films such Go­ril­las in the Mist, Breaker Mo­rant and Two Hands, it seemed in­evitable that Brown would find him­self play­ing a Wil­liamson char­ac­ter at some point in his ca­reer. ‘‘ I think it would’ve been bad if I’d died and I hadn’t done a Wil­liamson play,’’ Brown ad­mits.

In Trav­el­ling North, mat­ters of the heart — lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal — are the main con­cerns of Frank and Frances. As Frank’s heart con­di­tion wors­ens, Frances’s two daugh­ters worry their mother is wear­ing her­self out, that the north­ern ‘‘ par­adise’’ is too iso­lated. For Scac­chi, it was see­ing her own mother Pamela, aged 82, strug­gling to care for her el­derly part­ner that drew her to the play. ‘‘ I re­late quite a bit to my two daugh­ters in this story be­cause my mother is work­ing her­self into the ground look­ing af­ter some­one with Parkin­son’s, and he wants her to be the one that’s look­ing af­ter him.’’

Trav­el­ling North may res­onate more now than in the 70s. ‘‘ The baby boomer group is now re­ally deal­ing with their par­ents dy­ing, aged care, be­ing the car­ers them­selves,’’ Brown says.

Scac­chi also re­lates to her char­ac­ter’s re­flec­tion on her role as a mother. ‘‘ It’s a real les­son work­ing on Wil­liamson’s texts.’’ The re­al­i­ties of be­ing an ac­tor — and the gypsy life­style it ne­ces­si­tates — means fam­ily is of­ten far away. ‘‘ I’ve tried to engi­neer it some­times to be a glo­ri­ous fam­ily-friendly mo­ment. Oc­ca­sion­ally, rarely, you can have some syn­chronic­ity where they get to come along,’’ she says.

Shuf­fling through her iPad, Scac­chi brings up a copy of Philip Larkin’s hu­mor­ous ode to par­ent­ing, This Be the Verse. She re­cites the poem’s open­ing lines: ‘‘ They f . . k you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.’’ Brown, who has three chil­dren of his own, laughs. ‘‘ I want to send a copy to Mat­teo,’’ Scac­chi jokes.

Later in the year, Scac­chi will re­turn to Aus­tralia once more, this time to Perth for Black Swan the­atre’s stag­ing of Chekhov’s The Seag­ull. Leila, her 21-year-old daugh­ter with US ac­tor Vin­cent D’Onofrio, will join her on­stage. Born to an Ital­ian fa­ther and an English mother, Scac­chi spent her teenage years in the West Aus­tralian cap­i­tal. ‘‘ I re­ally love that city for how it was my alma mater.’’

At 66, Brown is only a year younger than Leo McKern was when he played Frank in Carl Schultz’s 1987 film adap­ta­tion of Trav­el­ling North. Brown is a lot less grand­fa­therly than McKern was, and a fair bit trim­mer as well. He surfs reg­u­larly at the north coast prop­erty he owns with his wife of 30 years, di­rec­tor and ac­tor Rachel Ward. Next year, Brown co-stars with Sam Neill in ABC se­ries Old School, about an ex-crim who pairs up with a re­tired cop.

Play­ing Frank in Trav­el­ling North has made Brown con­front his age, to a cer­tain ex­tent. ‘‘ Even if I might kid my­self I’m not at the right age, I am at the right age to do it!’’

Scac­chi and Brown hope au­di­ences will see Trav­el­ling North as a celebration of life rather than a med­i­ta­tion on mor­tal­ity. ‘‘ Th­ese are two peo­ple who find them­selves. This hap­pens from the time kids are bloody 14 to when they die. They find peo­ple. They find love with peo­ple,’’ Brown says. And lunch break is over.

Trav­el­ling North, Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany, Jan­uary 9 to March 22.

Greta Scac­chi and Bryan Brown

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