Shrine’ is an outstanding, brand new play by WA’s leading writer, Tim Winton. The Black Swan State Theatre Company is presenting this World Premiere in the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, Northbridge each night at 7.30 until Sunday 15th September. This fast-paced play is 85 minutes with no interval.

The set is based on the view across a country highway into the forest beyond. The stage floor has a steep rake and is asphalt covered, complete with white markings and cat’s eyes. A real 15-metre Karri trunk rises up and into the lighting grid. The background comprises stylised silhouettes of a Karri forest that give spaces for the ghosts to exist. The set transforms slowly throughout the play to a surfing beach, with breakers and an all-engulfing surfing tube that filled the stage.

The stage is littered with car parts and vehicle seats that act as normal domestic furniture for the interior scenes. The motor parts remind us of the real, perpetual thought at the back of the characters minds – the accident.

A police car siren wails; a phone is ringing followed by the knock on the door that all parents dread. The lights rise at the side of the stage to show a roadside shrine, littered with strange objects that meant so much to the latest road victim.

Distraught father, Adam (John Howard) aimlessly stabs his knife into the tree trunk, trying to take revenge on the tree for his son’s car still wrapped around it. His hysterical wife, Mary Mansfield (Sarah McNeill) hugs the corpse of her only child. Their son, Jack (Paul Ashcroft) having died on the road home to Perth from their south coast beach house. She is devastated by the loss and furious that her husband just seems to stand emotionless. Adam, however, is in denial and trying to do the brave masculine thing of controlling his feelings.

A year later, Adam is still making frequent trips south to visit his son’s tatty shrine. The father hates these trips, but he is struggling to come to terms with the numerous unanswered questions that the accident has thrown up. His wife has become introverted, remote and stays at home.

On one of his trips, Adam meets young June (Whitney Richards) who once worked in his wine cellar; she is one of the strange Fenton family who are neighbours to the winery. As they talk, like most parents who think they know their children perfectly, Adam learns a great deal about his lost heir. June tells of her meeting on the beach, with Jack and of his two so called friends. One boy is an arrogant, self-centred bully, Will (Luke McMahon) and the other lad is the sensitive and quiet Ben (Will McNeill). The group shared Jack’s last night together.

Director, Kate Cherry, Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company teamed up with Assistant Director, Emily McLean and Movement Director Chrissie Parrott, to give a fast moving, exciting character study of the family and those around.

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.

Sarah McNeill was absolutely amazing as the mother, totally hollowed out by the loss of her own flesh and blood. John Howard has deservedly won almost every Australian theatre and TV award; in this play his skill comes in under-playing the part. Behind his simple straight forward presentation you could sense the deep grief that he was feeling as his defences dropped for a split second, before the brave face was hurriedly resumed. Whitney Richards reached the pinnacle of her career with the portrayal of a girl heartbroken, but hanging on with joy to the happy moments she shared.

I am a huge fan of playwright and author, Tim Winton but on the odd occasion the dialogue of his plays seemed to lack punch; in this play we have a very unusual and extremely successful style of writing. The characters actually talk in direct address monologues, letting the audience know in depth what they are actually thinking. This gives a much richer and more satisfactory depiction of their thoughts. Had it been written in normal dialogue, confusion or offence would have occurred and only a fraction of the situation detail would have been forthcoming. These monologues, because of the clever structure gave the impression that the characters were actually talking to each other. Superb writing, Winton’s best for years.

I think that I am correct in saying that all of the ‘behind the scenes team’ were WAAPA trained.
Trent Suidgeest set was outstanding. The dark road surface inferred the tone of the play, and reduced distraction from the mood. Trent’s lighting design was aided by Kyle Bockmann, and beautifully reflected the warmth of the forest and the cool of the ocean. There were some excellent effects, such as the shimmer of the water on the massive breaker.

Ben Collins’ sound design was horrendously realistic, with the traffic zooming past (in stereo sound) to the crunching of the accident. Fiona Bruce was the costume designer, and with Marie Nitschke-McGregor skills sealed this very realistic scenario. Credit should go to stage manager Michael Maclean and his assistant Emily Stokoe for their hard work.

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. Tim Winton at his VERY best, backed by a stunning cast.