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