By Tim Winton. Directed by Kate Cherry.
Black Swan State Theatre Company.
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.
Until September 29.
Tim Winton's play Shrine examines the emotional consequences of the death of a young man on a country road in Western Australia.
Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft) is killed driving his two friends Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill) back to Perth from his family's beach house. With his death he leaves behind a father, Adam (John Howard); a mother, Mary (Sarah McNeill), both grieving in an individualistic manner; a girl, June Fenton (Whitney Richards), who has a story to tell about Jack's last evening; and the two unlikeable friends.
The work's title refers to those shrines, white crosses surrounded by personal objects, which pepper the Australian roadside these days.
The story is told from a variety of viewpoints and switches time frames as the play unfolds. This gives a kind of fluid structure to the play that at times requires a bit of effort to work out where things are. But the work moves swiftly and deals with such powerful emotions that it is impossible not to become completely immersed in the lives of the characters.
Winton makes effective use of soliloquies in which each of the characters divulges his or her innermost thoughts and feelings about Jack's death. But the play is especially strong when the characters engage with each other one on one. A telephone conversation between Adam and Mary revealing an unexpected reaction from Mary, a confronting conversation between Will and Ben about the funeral, and a frank discussion between June and Adam are all engrossing and thought-provoking.
The play rides on Winton's powerful writing. It is fluent, emotive, sometimes funny. It doesn't mince words or dwell too long on any one point. It is masterful in its use of poetic language, which grows in strength with generally strong performances from the actors. The scene when Mary conflates grief and pregnancy is totally absorbing, and June's retelling of the night Jack rescued her from the sea grows more and more eerie and beyond reality as she elaborates on the event.
But of the performers, I especially admired John Howard's confident command of the stage. His voice never reached shrillness or sounded forced as happened on occasions with one or two of the other performers.
Visually the sweep of black bitumen on which the action took place (design Trent Suidgeest) worked well and Suidgeest's placing of objects on the stage allowed the free-flowing structure of the play to unfold with ease.
I wished though that the set had not tried to reference so many elements of the play as in the end it lacked the simplicity that would have added greater power to the drama. But this is a play that will confront, challenge and ultimately absorb you.