Even with tragedy at its heart Tim Winton’s ‘Shrine’ shines

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Seeing from a distance the poster of Tim Winton’s new play Shrine, it looks like it could be a Shakespearean production such as Henry VIII or Hamlet – the kind you see old posters of hanging in the corridors of the Sydney Theatre Company. Alas on closer inspection, you’ll spot waves washed onto a shore and tree branches wriggling into twigs.

Indeed Shrine is as far removed from the lush moors of Shakespeare’s day and instead set in south coast rocky headlands of Western Australia – Winton’s state of birth – between a forest and a sea, where an auto accident has occurred, killing its sober driver, and leaving his survivors and family left pondering what could have been.

The production opens with a spotlight on the grieving father who is wondering whether a ‘shrine’ constructed at the exact spot of his son’s death is a decent gesture of sentiment or just a bloody unnecessary cliché. Cut to a body slouched over the bonnet of a car, and here the real sombreness begins.

Shrine is one of those plays where the tragedy takes centre-stage and is so sad at times – such as when the upset mother howls in anger at her son’s death – when one of the play’s characters suddenly does throw in a joke, the audience is immensely relieved.

While the character of deceased boy Jack’s ghost is the main protagonist, it is a girl named June whom Jack encounters just hours before he died who fills in most of the narrative’s blanks. Young thespian Whitney Richards is presented with the challenge of playing a three-fold victim in June, and does a great job at keeping it together – given the heavy responsibility. June is not only devil’s advocate in debating what happened that lead to the tragic outcome, but is a victim of sexual harassment (from Jack’s despicable buddies) and the subject of prime suspect and root cause of the accident itself.

Indeed the main theme of this story appears to be a kind of Who-Done-It? Or at least Whose-Fault-Was-It? as blame is subtly cast all over the stage.

With all its sliding doors rhetoric and main focus on death Shrine would make a pretty good modern opera… though we’re not sure how one would translate ockerisms like ‘bloke’, ‘bush pig’ and ‘smashed’ (as in drunk) into the Latin langue. 


The Black Swan Theatre Company presents Shrine at the Heath Ledger Theatre Centre of WA until September 15.

Bookings through www.ticketek.com.au or www.bsstc.com.au.


Whitney Richards as June in Shrine, photo by Gary Marsh Photography.