‘Shrine’ is a Play in One Act by WA’s leading writer, Tim Winton. This fast-paced play, that is 100 searing minutes with no interval, can be seen at the Melville Theatre, within the Roy Edinger Centre, on the corner of Stock Road and Canning Highway in Palmyra. The season runs each Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 2nd March, with curtain up at 8.00 pm.
This is a beautifully written, almost poetic and deeply moving story which not surprisingly has no lightness. Even the second story thread is filled with horror and is deeply disturbing.
The scenes are: the present day on a country road in a WA karri forest, a family beach house and a south coast beach.
The sets: on the right stage apron is a shrine at the base of a large tree. The shrine comprises items that brought joy to a youngster who recently died in a car crash at the spot. The beach home fills half the stage; it shows a clean, middleclass combined sitting room and kitchen – looks genuinely ‘lived in’. On the other side of the stage was a beach scene with a realistic log fire.
The set was constructed by James Fryer, Howard Fryer, Greg Murphy and Peter Bloor.
Stage manager Shaun Griffin and his assistant Claudia Sciano were fast and efficient with the minor scene changes.
Kayti Murphy’s sound design included a perfect selection of country music. May I suggest that a full volume car crash sound effect immediately before the ‘curtain up’ would have chilled the audience, and made the father’s visiting the grave more poignant? Lighting design by Ginny Moore Price was most effective. Ginny also acted as technical operator for both sound and lights. There was a short ‘over the shoulder’ video in the hospital which was clever and added to the depth of the tragedy.
In the forest, a distraught father, Adam (Phil Barnett) curses the shattered tree trunk for his son’s car accident.
In the next scene the parents are in a hospital ward staring at their dead son. Adam is dazed but coldly coping by denial. His wife, Mary (Suzannah Churchman) however is hysterical, desperately wanting to hug the corpse of their only child. She is devastated by the unnecessary loss, and furious that her husband just seems to stand emotionless. Adam, however, is hurting inside, and doing the macho thing of controlling his feelings.
A year later, Adam is still making frequent trips to visit his son’s shabby shrine. He hates these trips, but he is slowly coming to terms with the numerous unanswered questions that the accident has thrown up. Mary has become introverted, refusing to visit the site, and is starting to isolate herself from her husband.
Our children are on loan to us, not ours to own forever.
On one trip, Adam meets young June (Jessica Brooke) who once worked in his vineyard wine cellar. She is one of the ‘weird’ Fenton’s, a neighbouring family. Being stressed, Adam decided to sell his winery. Like most parents, Adam and Mary thought they knew everything about their only child, but soon began to learn all shades of his past. In her confused mind, Mary desperately recalls her happy beach days with her dear Jack as a youngster (Jack Churchman).
June tells Adam of her meeting on the beach, with Jack and of his two so called friends. One boy, Will (Alec Fuderer), is an arrogant self-centred bully, and the other lad is the sensitive and quiet Ben (Jacob Lane). In a semi-drunken stupor, the group shared Jack’s last night together.
There can hardly be a family in WA that has not been affected by such a tragedy. A catastrophe that even for friends can last for decades. Suzannah Churchman was amazing as the mother, totally hollowed out by the loss of her own flesh and blood. On the other hand, at first Phil seemed wooden, but he was actually correct in under-playing the emotion, slowly releasing his feelings throughout the play. You could sense the deep grief that he was feeling as his defences dropped.
Hannah Strobos’ costumes and Samantha Davies makeup were inventive.
With very little stage experience, Jessica under Kayti Murphy’s fine direction, conquered her tough script and portrayed the girl, heartbroken but hanging on with the joyous moments she shared. The whole cast melded well, giving powerful but restrained performances. The cast had perfect pace and chemistry. They had all good projection of their dialogue when there was normal interaction, but when the script called for quiet sensitive delivery or if the accents were ocker, it could be difficult to catch what was being said. Good, slow projection of sensitive or intimate dialogue is a special art that requires training. It was a pity, because the concentration required to catch the words often disturbed the interpretation of their meaning.
I am a huge fan of playwright and author, Tim Winton but occasionally his dialogue can lack punch; in this play the characters turn to the audience and talk in ‘direct address monologues’, letting the listeners know in depth what the characters are actually thinking. This gives a much richer and more satisfactory depiction of their thoughts.
This play has its harrowing moments, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable as it reminds us of our own children and their secret lives – the lives that parents know exist, but shudder to think about. Here Tim Winton is at his VERY best, backed by a strong cast.