Anyone who has driven any distance in Australia will be familiar with the roadside shrines that adorn the country’s roads and highways. Attached to power poles in the cities or trees in the country, the white crosses – often decorated with flowers or other mementos – are both a memorial to the victims of road accidents and a grim warning for those driving past. It is around one of these shrines, at the edge of a forest on the south coast of Western Australia, that the drama of Australian novelist and playwright Tim Winton’s Shrine swirls.

“I live a long way from anywhere really,” Winton tells me. “I’m 14 or 15 hours from Perth by road, so whenever I go anywhere I spend a fair bit of time on the road. I’ve just noticed the last 10, 15, 20 years – and it’s certainly different to my youth – the proliferation of roadside shrines. These little white crosses that people put up at the point where their friend or loved one has died.”

“Just seeing the way that they’re put up and tended to and decorated with garlands or memorabilia,” he says. “They’re things that people associate with their friend or their child or their relative.”

Tim Winton, ShrineTim Winton. Photo © Jono Van Hest

A harrowing examination of grief and loss, Shrine is Winton’s third play and premiered in 2013 in Perth, in a production by Black Swan State Theatre Company. Four years later, the play is coming to fortyfivedownstairs for the work’s Melbourne premiere.

I ask Winton what it was about the roadside shrines that caught his imagination. “I guess driving by and seeing some particular shrines over and over again,” he says. “You think: ‘God, behind every one of these little symbols is a violent and tragic event, and the long shadow of grief – all these friends and families and people who are affected by this life being cut short.’ And of course, so many of them are young people who have had their lives cut short – all that promise and potential is just expunged.”

For Winton, the shrines are also a peculiarly rare expression of public emotion in this country. “Australians, being a kind of almost militantly irreligious lot, are generally quite uncomfortable about any kind of public expression of grief,” he explains. “We have a war memorial in every country town – young people cut short by the first war and then the second war – and it seems to me that these little roadside shrines are another manifestation of that. We’re not that keen about other shrines, but these shrines, we let them in under the wire. We seem to have allowed ourselves this form of expression, at least. I guess that interests me.”

“Even though the iconography, the way the things are put around the crosses seems to show a kind of impoverished suite of expressions, it’s still sincere,” he says. “The footy scarf – sometimes there’ll be a pair of sneakers – and heartrendingly, I’m sure for parents, there’s often bourbon cans and beer cans and bottles. But it’s interesting to see the way people will personalise these little shrines, and why shouldn’t they?”

Tim Winton, ShrineTim Winton. Photo © Denise Winton

In the opening scene of Winton’s play, a father, Adam (played by Chris Bunworth in Melbourne), kicks down a shrine – littered with bottles and cans – erected for his son Jack. “I guess the play is partly about and begins with a kind of contested space where, in this instance, the little roadside shrine hasn’t been put up by the parents, and it’s not tended to by the parents,” Winton explains.

“In fact, the 19-year-old boy who’s died, his father regularly goes to the shrine and kicks it down and tries to remove all the stuff – the memorabilia that’s put up there – partly I’m sure because it’s so drenched with images and placards and receptacles of alcohol, which he suspects is the reason his son died in the first place. But I think it’s interesting and understandable and kind of touching to me that I drive by seeing shrines tended to, often with quite quirky bits and bobs. Some shrines have got garden gnomes next to them and all kinds of stuff.”

Shrine is set near a coastal town on the edge of a karri forest. “It sounds glib, but it’s true: the more trees there are in a landscape, the more white crosses there are,” Winton says. “And I guess in the south-west of Western Australia, where I lived as a young man, I noticed these enormous, heavy trees with big scars on the side and little white crosses there.”

Tim Winton's ShrineTim Winton’s Shrine at fortyfivedownstairs

In addition to the practical element, the setting also allows Winton to explore the socio-economic frictions of an area that has been traditionally dairy farming and forestry, but is seeing an increasing shift to viticulture and tourism. “It’s a kind of layering of stories,” he says, “differences in class and when people arrived. And in any forest, of course, it’s full of shadows and any novelist is going to make hay with shadows in terms of ghosts or untold stories, I suppose. It’s also set quite close to the south coast of Western Australia where the wine country is on the sea, so all kinds of activities meet there.”

Much of the play’s story-telling focuses on interactions between Adam – a retired winemaker and property developer who used to own a vineyard in the area – and a local cellarhand June, who was with Jack in the hours before his death, and who will be played in Melbourne by Tenielle Thompson. “Adam, the father, doesn’t even know that this girl June exists,” Winton says. “He certainly doesn’t have any inkling that she existed in his son’s life, and had kind of intimate knowledge of him that he’s not aware of. And the fact that June is an employee, or a former employee, and from the lower orders, shall we say, is quite unsettling to him – that’s disturbing him and his peace.”

“On the surface they want to be left alone by each other, to be honest, but June wants to be acknowledged whether she knows it or not. And in the end, as they butt up against each other, I think they want to be understood by one another. But also along the way there, they’re really competing for intimacy – as people do, consciously or unconsciously – competing for primacy over the memory of the dead person.”

Tim Winton's ShrineJohn Howard and Whitney Richards in the 2013 Black Swan State Theatre production of Shine

Interactions between the character’s in Shrine are shot through with these power dynamics. “In Adam’s case, he assumes privilege just by waking up in the morning – because of his status as a businessperson, the class he’s come from, the school he’s gone to, the fact that he’s a male. In the original production in WA that toured and went to Canberra he was played by John Howard who is a really imposing figure anyway. I mean the great John Howard not the little John Howard – he’s less imposing, shall we say, in every sense.”

“There’s all those layers of gender and privilege and class privilege, and in a sense he towers over this young woman and expects authority, and assumes authority that’s not actually there,” Winton explains. “And he’s sort of undone by that.”

“I think June doesn’t really understand the extent to which she is powerful just by her proximity to this dead boy. The things that she knows about him, the way that she’s loved him from afar, the way that she’s come to know him in ways that his father never has. She slowly begins to understand that she has that power and begins to wield it a little bit, and it’s quite bewildering for the big man to be challenged and wrong-footed by this slip of a girl who is, in his mind, one step away from being white trash.”

Tim Winton’s Shrine is at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, May 24 – June 18