Counting and Cracking was written by S. Shakthidharan, a Sydney writer, director and producer with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. The process of bringing Shakthidharan’s work to the stage has taken several years (Belvoir and Artistic Director Eamon Flack have been working on the project since 2013) and it’s happened as a result of a collaboration between the writer, Belvoir and Co-Curious. Currently performing at Sydney Town Hall as part of Sydney Festival 2019, this production includes a cast of 16 actors from six countries and has involved contributions from individuals around the world. In short, Counting and Cracking is an ambitious, if not staggering, undertaking.
Shakthidharan’s play tells the story of a middle-aged Sri Lankan woman, Radha (Nadie Kammallaweera), and her son, Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar), who live in the suburbs of Sydney. Siddhartha was born not long after Radha’s arrival in Australia just over 21 years earlier. The granddaughter of a Tamil politician (Prakash Belawadi), she made the decision to flee the family home in Colombo as the Sri Lankan Civil War broke out and the capital became a warzone. Radha’s husband, Thirru (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) disappeared when riots erupted and is believed to have been killed.
Radha’s now-settled life in Australia is rocked by a phone call from her homeland. A journalist and old friend of her family, Hasanga (Nicholas Brown), tells Radha that Thirru is alive. He’s just been released from prison and is now searching for the wife he hasn’t seen in more than two decades. When he learns of her new life in Australia and that he has a son, Thirru resolves quickly to join them. Of course, given that he’s regarded a terrorist by his government, travelling to Australia will require Thirru to make a treacherous journey he’s unlikely to survive. At the same time, the revelation that her husband is still alive and intent on rejoining her will require Radha to confront a past she’s kept buried for many years, and doing so will be undoubtedly painful.
Played out over three acts and with a running time of approximately 210 minutes, Counting and Cracking is an epic triumph. Shakthidharan takes us from modern day Australia back to Sri Lanka at a time prior to the outbreak of a civil war that would last a quarter of a century and claim as many as 100,000 lives. At once, this is a background story with which many of us won’t be familiar and yet the human experiences we see will likely resonate. This is a story that weaves in crucial themes around the ties that bind us, our innate connection to each other regardless of our differences, and the need to look back in order to move forward. It also speaks to the need for us to stop ourselves from being torn apart by politics and even alludes to the crucial role of uncompromising journalism in contemporary society.
There is so much is canvassed in Counting and Cracking, and Flack has woven it together in a remarkable production that is riveting, affecting, challenging and enlightening. An enormous amount of detail is included in this story, but it never feels too much or that there is any unnecessary complication of the narrative. Instead, we remain captivated by the 16 storytellers and become completely invested in this family saga.
Deciding to cast the net far and wide for these actors is a decision that has benefitted the production substantially. The actors take on 50 roles between them and also insert themselves in various ways, such as providing soundscapes which make for a wonderful natural flow. It is difficult to identify standouts in a piece in which each and every player is impressive, though Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash (who portrays Radha at a younger age) each create a strong, multi-dimensional central character forced to cope with the most difficult of circumstances. Jesuthasan is heartbreaking in his performance as Thirru, whose release from prison is ultimately far from the end of the hardship he will suffer. Palekar is terrific as Siddhartha, a young man suddenly aware of the life his mother left behind in Colombo, while Rarriwuy Hick is steady and engaging as Lily, Siddhartha’s girlfriend with roots in Arnhem Land. Belawadi and Sukania Venugopal show great integrity as Radha’s grandparents.
It is incredibly satisfying to have the text delivered at times in the native language and interpreted into English by other actors. It gives the piece a beautiful authenticity.
Dale Ferguson has masked the neoclassical architecture of the interior of Sydney Town Hall and totally transforms the space to create an almost-tangible sense of our entry into the world of these characters. The thrust stage (and Flack’s excellent use of the entire space) makes it easy for us to become quickly immersed in that world. Music by Stefan Gregory (and performed by Kiran Mudigonda and Janakan Raj) is thoughtfully incorporated.
Counting and Cracking has been a long time in the making and the extraordinary efforts of those involved have been rewarded. This is an outstanding, carefully crafted production that shares an important story of the origins of many of today’s Australians. It’s a reminder that Australia is a diverse but single community, made up of inextricably-linked individuals. If you see one show at this year’s Sydney Festival, make sure this is it.
COUNTING AND CRACKING – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 2 February, 2019
Venue: Sydney Town Hall
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444
Counting and Cracking will be touring to the Adelaide Festival for a limited season from 2 – 9 March, 2019. For more information about the Adelaide season and to purchase tickets, click here