May 27th 2017 | Stephanie-Bowie Liew
How many times have you driven past a roadside shrine and wondered about the person it's dedicated to? What kind of person were they, and what led to their death? Do the shrine's adornments represent the core of them, the way they would have wanted to be seen in death? Who were the people who erected it? What do the deceased's family think of it? What are the motivations of the people who visit it?
Tim Winton's third play Shrine begins by giving us a glimpse of those questions, and opens up an ocean more to do with grief and loss, and how we as individuals and as a Western, Australian society deal with these matters.
In the wake of their son Jack Mansfield's (Christian Taylor) death — a car accident, suspicious circumstances — Adam and Mary Mansfield (Chris Bunworth and Alexander Fowler, respectively) find their previously solid marriage now disintegrating. Mary wants to talk about Jack's death all the time, while the stoic Adam can't — or won't — find the words. Adam spends more and more time at the family beach house in a small coastal town — which Jack loved to visit, and was returning from when the car accident happened — but Mary refuses to go with him because she can't stand to drive past the shrine marking the location of Jack's death.
It isn't until local girl June (Tenielle Thompson) visits Adam at the beach house, and engages him in conversation about Jack, and how she witnessed his final day, that Adam can start to work through some of the emotions he's been trying to suppress with bottle after bottle of wine.
Meanwhile, Ben (Keith Brockett) and Will (Nick Clark), who were with Jack in the car when it crashed, play the moment over in their heads, tell themselves what they want to hear, rearrange their memories, sift through their conflicting feelings, and wonder who is to blame for what happened.
Leon Salom's bare set, heavy on the brick and mortar and dilapidation, immediately signifies that everything has already broken down; the story begins in the rubble of the disaster that has touched these characters' lives. Kris Chainey's lighting transforms the set from stark, cold city scenes to a bleak Australiana setting: the bush, a fire, the beach, the reflection of the moon in the black water. What's equally as stirring is the lack of light during some scenes, the use of shadows. Director Marcel Dorney doubles as sound designer, his contributions in both capacities commendable.
All actors begin a little stiffly (or is it the script that begins unsteadily?), but as the play wears on, they fall into their characters. Bunworth balances Adam's barely-restrained seething and pain with some more fatherly, vulnerable, tender moments. Fowler's performance during Mary's climactic scene is especially affecting. Taylor is wonderfully natural as the likeable and charismatic Jack; the boy who had his whole life ahead of him. Brockett grapples with adolescent male cockiness, morality and self-doubt in equal measures, while Clark embodies the complexities of the archetypal private school boy well. Thompson capably tackles several tough and triggering subjects in June. While on the page June could be read as bordering on exploitation or cliche, Thompson handles June with nuance, simultaneously frank yet delicate, open yet guarded.
There's a lot to unpack in Shrine — the dynamics between young and old, men and women, city and coast; the power of the privileged and the elite, the 'boys will be boys' mentality and toxic masculinity, trauma and violence, and female autonomy, control and empowerment — and there's a lot to take away. And yet, the ending leaves you feeling a little cold, detached and hopeless. When will we stop seeing those crosses and garlands on roadsides?