FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Death on the Road: Memory in Tim Winton’s Shrine

The effort of the Kin Collective behind Tim Winton’s third play, Shrine, was always going to be a step onto virgin land. For one, Winton comes at the play as a novelist, thick with internalised images and noise. As the director Marcel Dorney explained of the recently concluded production, “People who spend more time in drama have a different approach to structuring that experience.”

The focus of the play is death, but death in a manner reflective of a nation in love with its vehicles. The car is emancipator, a liberating device on four wheels that takes the child out of the womb of the home into the outer world.

That outer world comes with its dangers, including road toll figures that are staggering in their dimension. Cars of freedom can become coffins of despair. Nothing detracts from that sheer carnage, despite the yawn inducing language from the monthly bulletins issued by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics.

“During the 12 months ending May 2017,” goes one BITRE remark over numbers that would make a mighty necropolis, “there were 1,226 road deaths.” Despite such a number, the bureaucratic instinct prefers to place it in minor, almost congratulatory perspective: “This is a 2.7 percent decrease compared to the total for the 12-month period ended May 2016.”

The spectacular comes up against the prosaic, the ordinariness of the lethal moment, made sacred by monuments, reflective reminders left on the road, near the scene of the cruel departure. As Winton surmises, “It has to be a particularly grisly death to make the paper. The private story is told by the signs that people put up.”

Winton’s own effort suggests a point repeatedly touched upon by Malraux, who was never convinced that the mystical or religious had retired from the enlightened march of secularism. Underneath the desire for progressive liberation from immaturity is an equally tenacious wish for spiritual identification. Witness that very issue now, where martyrdom retains its potent currency.

In the act of heroism or cowardice, faith beats and hacks its way through the undergrowth of doubt. Winton rightly notes that, despite an essentially secular base in the country of his birth, with its a near manic resistance to iconography, there are gloriously odd exceptions. The Australian war memorial has become the manifestation of a “secular religion”, a form of totemic mysticism clinging to such tenuous concepts as mateship and solidarity before shell and bullet.

Australia is far from unique in this, though it lacks the sheer range of historical material for memorialisation. Countries accustomed to a generational change of foreign rulers, a regular shift in the guard, are also conditioned by the change of monuments, the lexical tricks that come with renaming streets and replacing designated heroes in battles over memory.

In the last decade, Spain provided a supreme illustration about how monuments and symbols from another era – that of the dictator Franco – might be confronted. The Law of Historical Memory remains a remarkable effort to reconcile yet challenge a blood-soaked, grievous past. All societies have their memorials, but some are deemed more desirable than others.

This desirability, this conflict on memory, is central to Shrine. This is not a play about gargantuan monuments whisked off plinths and ravaged by hammers and shoes. It is not about cold storage for deposed dictators. The focus is ordinary: the road death of Jack (Christian Taylor), and the shrine made for him near the spot of his demise by his flawed car companions.

In this production, there was one actor who seized the Winton model ideally, and came across as a masterful man of realised images on stage. The grieving father, Adam Mansfield, played by Chris Bunworth, overwhelms the audience with his wine lubricated suffering, effectively displacing his dead son with an alternative figure – his variant, if you will.

The only criticism here is how overwhelming that performance is, supplanting that of the mother, Mary (Alexandra Fowler). This may well be the failure on Winton’s part to fully realise the female character, a point that adds a note of lopsidedness to an otherwise magnificent effort.

The dead becomes puttee to mould, and the characters of the play supply the material. The shrine that springs up to Jack’s death is not something Adam finds sombre relief in. Such an object is something to revile, a reflection of “mystic shit” rather than deep worth. Each time he drives by, he destroys it, raging at Jack’s companions who survived the crash.

He has one opponent in that respect. June (Teneille Thompson) is the resident teenager frowned upon as a hick, a “bush pig” who works at the local IGA supermarket. After each destructive episode, she returns to resurrect the shrine to Jack. She proceeds to insert herself into the father’s life, and recalls the last moments of Jack’s last night alive. A painting is thereby realised: Jack in the company of rowdy, insecure peers; a blossoming infatuation stemming from June for Jack; acts of supposed heroism and folly.

For all the brooding rage in Adam’s character, it is evident that such anger is a disagreement on how best to remember a late son, a point complicated by a reserve and denial cultivated over the years of parenthood and privilege.

June’s account of Jack, a naïve, boyish enthusiasm, seems somewhat at odds with the father’s. But is this her reading of Jack, or a father’s wish to imagine a different son who died that early morning? Winton, and this production, keeps us guessing.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

December 19, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russophobia and the Specter of War
Jonathan Cook
American Public’s Backing for One-State Solution Falls on Deaf Ears
Daniel Warner
1968: The Year That Will Not Go Away
Arshad Khan
Developing Country Issues at COP24 … and a Bit of Good News for Solar Power and Carbon Capture
Kenneth Surin
Trump’s African Pivot: Another Swipe at China
Patrick Bond
South Africa Searches for a Financial Parachute, Now That a $170 Billion Foreign Debt Cliff Looms
Tom Clifford
Trade for Hostages? Trump’s New Approach to China
Binoy Kampmark
May Days in Britain
John Feffer
Globalists Really Are Ruining Your Life
John O'Kane
Drops and the Dropped: Diversity and the Midterm Elections
December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail