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Shrine @ The Heath Ledger Theatre

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By Andrew MacNiven

The jarring screech of tires is followed by the inevitable crunch of twisted metal. As the scene is illuminated, the crushed, broken front section of a Sedan is revealed, hazard lights blinking plaintively through the gloom. The car is wrapped around the trunk of a huge tree, which stretches into the darkness above.

This is the opening of ‘Shrine’, the third play penned by celebrated writer Tim Winton for the Black Swan State Theatre Company. With such an esteemed Perth native as playwright, it is little surprise that performances are already almost sold out, with the play’s run having barely commenced. Audiences will expect a certain level of flair, poise and narrative fidelity from the author of ‘Cloudstreet’ and ‘Dirt Music’, and, gladly, they will not be disappointed.

We first meet Adam Mansfield (John Howard) purposelessly slicing chunks of bark from the aforementioned tree trunk. There is something intangibly primal in this errant act of destruction, akin to ripping the leaves from a plant or thoughtlessly trampling an insect into the pavement. The viewer is left to ascertain whether this is done out of anger or merely boredom, but this simple act of a dishevelled man absent-mindedly tearing the ‘flesh’ from a living organism is a striking portent of oncoming violence.

Adam and his wife Mary (Sarah McNeill) are reliving the ordeal of identifying the body of their son, Jack (Paul Ashcroft), who is another victim of the country roads, killed on the long return journey to Perth from the family beach house on the south coast of WA. Adam and Mary have each been tremendously altered by the loss. Adam says (quantifying an impalpable, disproportionate emotional calculus) that the void left by Jack’s absence is somehow even greater than space he had occupied during his all too fleeting life.

At the funeral, Adam and Mary have to face the wasted platitudes and pointless banalities; Mary is reduced to hysterics, making an ‘unbecoming’ scene of herself, while Adam remains soundless, standing as stoic and unmoved as the tree that was a silent witness to his son’s end. He is in disbelief; Jack’s future had seemed assured, trundling towards him with the certainty of the waves breaking on the shore. He’d had all of the advantages, all of the privileges, yet these were no shield to what was ostensibly a senseless accident.

Adam revisits the beach house to expunge himself from Mary’s quiet agony, encountering June (Whitney Richards), who reveals tantalising details of the events leading up to the crash, including the actions of Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill), Jack’s loutish mates who survived the incident.

The set design by Trent Suidgeest is effective in its minimalism, with the totemic outline of the tree trunk dominating one side of the stage, while the dissected pieces of an entire car become transformational devices, forming seats and surfboards. The sea – which features strongly here, as in so many of Winton’s works – is subtly represented by the sloping outline of a wave formation, which might also double as warped asphalt. Another constant presence is the shrine for which the play is named: one of the makeshift roadside tributes which seem to spontaneously spring from the ashes of human tragedy.

‘Shrine’ is a fine theatrical achievement from director Kate Cherry and her cast and crew. The play sights the pinnacle of creative collaboration; Winton and the Black Swan State Theatre Company have combined to create a hypnotic rhapsody of love and pain. You can almost taste the seawater.

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