Tim Winton’s poetic text is brought to life by Marcel Dorney and the Kin Collective.
Image by Glen Wilson
Georgia Symons Sunday 28 May, 2017
Last year, 1,290 people died on Australian roads. Their stories are many and varied, and every single one of their deaths was preventable and senseless. With his third stage play, Shrine, Australian novelist Tim Winton has captured the story of one such death, the life lived beforehand, the lives left behind, and the utter unpredictability of the emotions that surface in the wake of such an incident.
In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Tim Winton said, ‘As a playwright I make a pretty decent novelist,’ presumably alluding to the fact that his play is a poetic, wordy, dense proposition. But though Winton’s attitude with this remark seems self-deprecating, the play is such a delight, and all the more refreshing for its flights of poetry and its keen focus on memory and the internal.
All of that having been said, it’s a text that could easily go belly-up in the hands of the wrong director. Luckily, Marcel Dorney is at the helm and gives Winton’s language plenty of space. Actors move just enough to remain present with one another and to give us flickers of illustration, and Leon Salom’s design is spare and dynamic.
The cast do well with a script which poses challenges to performers more accustomed to relating directly to one another, rather than bringing the internal directly to the surface. Chris Bunworth is compelling and unpredictable as the father; even in his most tender moments, it feels as though he is teetering on the edge of attack. Often sharing the stage with Bunworth, Tenielle Thompson anchors the space with disarming assurance, and makes light work of some particularly challenging tracts of text. Christian Taylor is perfectly cast as the golden boy cut down in his prime, and the delight and vitality he brings to the moments of reliving his life give the facts of his death the necessary gravitas.
All of the performances are strong. But in a work where everything internal is rendered in text, the characters of the mother and the two friends are less well drawn, purely because they get less airplay. That having been said, Winton plays with this lack of dimension in the case of posh private school boy Ben (Nick Clark), pushing him so far down the well-trodden path of privileged baby sociopath that by the time his final tearful monologue came around, it was all I could do not to throw my shoes at his head.
There are a few plot holes in the work; and, more importantly, a few unresolved questions around the themes and context of the work. Particular questions that arose for me related to who we idolise and why; whose deaths (or unhappy lives) are tragic, and whose are to be expected. But these tensions are referred to here and there in the work. And in speaking specifically about road deaths, which are entirely preventable, the story earns some authority. On top of this, as pointed out by Dorney in his director’s note, one of the greatest achievements of this work is to shed light on, and speak openly about, some of the uglier or more unpredictable internal territory of grief.