Sydney Morning Herald: Tim Winton's play Shrine tests writer's nerves and shines a light on road trauma

Debbie Cuthbertson

"As a playwright I make a pretty decent novelist," says Tim Winton. "I don't have any illusions about that."

Speaking by phone from Western Australia's Pilbara region on a bright blue day, the writer – one of Australia's best-known literary figures – doesn't sugarcoat his attempts at writing for the stage. 

The cast of Kin Collective's Shrine, from left, Tenielle Thompson, Keith Brockett, Christopher Bunworth, Ally Fowler, Christian Taylor and Nick Clark. Photo: Wayne Taylor

"Come on," I retort. But it's no false modesty, or certainly doesn't sound like it, coming from him.

Melbourne indie theatre outfit Kin Collective is staging Winton's 2013 play Shrine at Fortyfivedownstair from this week.

Tim Winton found the process of collaboration involved in staging a play, and the medium's ephemeral nature, took him out of his comfort zone. Photo: Denise Winton

Shrine is Winton's third play, after Rising Water, staged by Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, and Signs of Life at Sydney Theatre Company in 2012. Each work made its debut at WA's Black Swan Theatre.

"I won't be able to see it myself, I've got to go to London for a book tour," says Winton, who will be on the UK promotional trail for The Boy Behind the Curtain, his recent collection of essays.

"I was stoked when I found out the show was going to be remounted. I'm really interested to see how it will be reimagined ... [and how] the new show will overcome all my inadequacies."

He didn't intend to start writing for the stage: it wasn't until he was part-way through Shrine that he realised he was writing a play. 

"I woke up one day and realised I was in the middle of writing one. I thought, hang on, this isn't a novel."

The process of collaboration involved in staging a play, and the medium's ephemeral nature, took him out of his comfort zone.  

"It was just interesting to see the way an actor would embody a character that lives in words and images ... The alchemy of that, is startling, you know.

"Having led a kind of sheltered life where I control all the levers, and spend all of my day with people who don't exist which is convenient, that was interesting and sometimes bewildering and hard to keep up, if you've been solo all that time.

"I guess I had to let go of the kind of security that a novelist has."

The nerve it requires was also something he struggled with. "I wouldn't say it was traumatic, but I guess I was surprised at the difference ... 

"People who are hardened veterans of the theatre, I have so much admiration for their nerves. I just feel a bt of a sap really, you just want to hide."

His first experience of seeing his work adapted for the stage was Belvoir and Black Swan's 2001 production of his epic novel Cloudstree

"Opening night was both a disaster and triumph," he says. "It was incredibly hot, it rained during the first two acts ... At half-time, people left, it was too hard, too hot ... those who stayed barracked for the play, for the cast, quite literally."

Shrine was sparked by myriad influences, from Winton's father's experiences as a traffic policeman to his own regular 14-hour, non-stop drives down to Perth. 

The shrine of the title reflects the makeshift roadside memorials that appear after a fatal crash. The play depicts the fallout following the death of a young man, as his family and friends struggle over his memory and identity.

"I've ... had a long-term interest in road trauma, being brought up in a house where accidents are our business, [as] dad was a traffic cop," says Winton.

"It's an odd thing to realise that nearly 2000 people a year die a violent death on our roads. There's no outcry to it. To a shark attack there's hysteria and tabloid coverage. We've somehow normalised violent death on our roads and it's become a normal part of our culture.

"It has to be a particularly grisly death to make the paper. The private story is told by the signs that people put up. 

"I was also interested in the iconography. We're a largely secular nation; we're almost militantly irreligious, we resist all forms of iconography, except for war memorials, that's almost a secular religion.

"But these are more personal, more private expressions of memory, of grief."

Marcel Dorne is directing Shrine for Kin Collective, which is run by a group including actors Marg Downey and Michaela Banas.

For Dorney, working with Winton's way of writing for the stage is an interesting experience.

"Tim is a novelist, he is absolutely, and his writing structures human experience in a way that I really find no one else does," says Dorney. "It's about the fine details, the internal ... putting that on stage.

"People who spend more time in drama have a different approach to structuring that experience. But it's not that this is ... a bad script, it's an extremely good one. It's just that the precedents for it are more likely to be stuff [by] contemporary Irish playwrights, like Mark O'Row, who wrote Terminus, which can be quite odd for Australian audiences and actors.

"I think what I'm hoping is what we've been searching for and hit upon is an approach and style that is very different to what the Kin actors are used to working with. But it's been really rewarding, particularly in the last little while as the pennies sort of dropped.

"I haven't spoken with Tim about it, but if I had – and perhaps you can assist through the medium of the newspaper – but I think he's absolutely got the right idea in terms of the experience the audience undergoes and the notes you've got to hit."

Shrine is at Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, from May 26 to June 18.