The hole they leave is bigger than the space they took. How can that be?
Black Swan’s new production of Tim Winton’s Shrine, now on at Heath Ledger Theatre, fits a big story into small spheres.
There are few plays, surely, that give voice to a story so typical of WA – 19-year-old Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft) and his two schoolmates have a car crash on a country road while returning to Perth from a night out at his parents’ beach house. Jack’s friends survive; he is killed.
This narrow lens opens a window into the lives of people who are part of a story so common in WA: otherwise privileged teenagers drinking and killing themselves in powerful cars on treacherous country roads, so often pitiful crosses such as the one draped in an Eagles scarf on this set are commonplace: sad, but unremarkable. As Jack’s father Adam Mansfield (stage and screen stalwart John Howard) says, his son is just a number.
Despite this pinpoint on a unique place on an island’s most isolated city, Shrine hones in on a theme so universal anyone who has ever lost a loved one will recognise it: grief, and the peculiar hierarchy of who owns the right to it; love, and the different versions of a person known to their loved ones.
Winton is no stranger to human misery, and I must admit, I was a bit dismayed by the picture of abject misery Shrine leapt straight in to. The poster promised coarse language, smoking, nudity and drug use, so I could be forgiven for thinking I might have been in for something rather scintillating.
Some much-appreciated laughs break up the dirge, mostly delivered by Jack’s bereaved, alcoholic father (Howard as believable as ever). Whitney Richards does a pleasingly unaffected, guileless job of Jack’s love interest, regional IGA worker June, though my fellow theatregoer Lurgy thought her “bush pig” accent, with its dropped consonants, a little forced.
Though at times the dialogue feels very much like one should read it in a novel rather than hear it on stage, somewhat at odds with the naturalistic representations of the subject, I cannot deny it is, like all Winton’s work, very well-written.
He does himself proud with teenage vernacular – you feel Jacks’ friends’ derisive comments lash June and wince on her behalf. Will and Ben’s cruelty is something all Western Australians have heard before.
Jack’s mother Mary Mansfield was played by Sarah McNeill with fierce commitment, and she portrayed a mother falling apart while maintaining a statuesque sort of dignity. Lurgy was unimpressed, saying McNeill was far too melodramatic, and while I concede her delivery was markedly to the rest of the cast’s and this was a bit jarring (Lurgy: “infuriating”), some people are a English naturally, even in real life Perth. The way she touched her son’s body spoke to me of motherhood. Also in her favour was a powerful closing monologue that caused some distressing physical symptoms: goosebumps rose up, throat closed down and weird salty drops slid out the sides of my eyes.
When that call comes, it’s midnight wherever you are.
The set, a beach littered with fragments of vehicle carcass that also served as furniture and other props, is as good as all Black Swan’s seem to be, and used with the most uplifting effect in the middle, when you see Jack’s and June’s only love scene (of sorts). Blue, hazy spotlighting light and pitch darkness pricked by faraway electric lights create an eerie, freezing night on the water; a momentarily re-purposed half-sunken car roof serves as a surfboard; and delicate music plays, all the more noticeable because of the play’s almost complete lack of other sound effects. It saves the play from the moments of horror and ugliness it depicts.
But these moments expose the meaning beating at the heart of the big-story-within-a-small: everyone wants a piece of grief, wants a piece of that person they loved, and their opinions of who that person was can be as different as night and day. Adam Mansfield hears June’s stories of his son teaching her about wines and, bewildered, tells her he never knew his son knew anything of the sort. He and his wife revolve in their separate circles of grief, each disgusted by the other’s behaviour. She cannot visit the crash site – he cannot keep away from it. Jack’s friends put up a crude shrine there, with alcohol bottles and paraphernalia, and Adam cannot stand it and rips it down repeatedly. June is upset by this and pleads with him to leave it.
It’s better than nothing.
Shrine tells its audience that people are limited, but grief and love are infinite – and there’s plenty to go around.
Shrine runs at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until September 15.
The production will then tour to Albany Entertainment Centre September 19 – 20 and then to Canberra Theatre Centre September 26 – 29.