Friday, September 27, 2013

Shrine by Tim Winton

Shrine by Tim Winton.  Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth, directed by Kate Cherry, at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, September 26-29, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

Tim Winton is a storyteller, and so are his characters.  Alongside the road he sees a small white cross, some flowers and objects scattered around the base of a tree.  This is not just a memorial, but a shrine symbolic of the person who died there.  But what does it mean when among the bottles of spirits and beer there is an old thong?

He sees a middle-aged man, Adam, stop to angrily tear down the shrine and disperse all the memories.  But the next time Adam drives by, he has to stop and destroy the construction again.  Who keeps re-creating the shrine?

As we hear Adam Mansfield (John Howard), his wife Mary (Sarah McNeill) and the teenage girl June Fenton (Whitney Richards) tell their stories, which include the stories told by the teenagers who survived the crash, Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill), and by the dead teenager Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft), we discover a complexity of life of the kind that must be represented by every shrine we see along every country road.

It’s a sobering experience, yet also enlightening.  And for many, as Kate Cherry said in the pre-show forum, the play provides a catharsis, a kind of cleansing of fear, especially among parents of teenage boys.  Though there are humorous moments, this is a tragedy in the ancient Greek form.  We know the ending before the play begins, but how did it come to this?

In Winton’s storytelling, time is a highly malleable element.  All the physical items needed – the tree, the shrine, the two halves of the car, the funeral furniture, the fire on the beach, Adam’s beach house wine bar – are present on stage throughout, so scenes shift and time changes as characters move and are lit or shadowed.

The acting was excellent throughout, with to my mind special mention justified for the women, Whitney Richards and Sarah McNeill, whose roles reminded me of the Greek – of the young Antigone, who pleaded for the proper treatment of her dead brother, and an older Electra, left alone when all in the household are dead.  As, in some sense, the central character, John Howard’s creation of the diversity of attitudes and feelings within Adam Mansfield was a brilliant piece of work – not so much ancient Greek, but rather very recognisable modern Australian.

For West Australians, as we might expect from Winton’s other writing, there are points of local identification – but these give the work specificity while the issues are universal.  This is what makes for great storytelling, and an excellent drama on stage.


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