In the centre of Town Hall’s iconic Victorian design, Belvoir and Co-Curious have erected an immense courtyard which will become a house, a prison, a playground, and a beach over nearly 50 years of four generations and two countries. Counting and Cracking is about family, culture, and a sense of self and the way these are torn apart or trodden down by politics, war, and fear.
The story confronts persecution of Tamil people in Sri Lanka specifically, but settles it into a context that includes Australia’s colonisation and illegal treatment of refugees. In a country that once had an official policy of multiculturalism but now is globally recognised as in violation of human rights agreements regarding asylum seekers as well as its cruel treatment of Indigenous populations, this is a play that stretches the borders of Australian storytelling.
Other than politics, S. Shakthidharan’s script concerns itself with the individual of a family and the way a parent will give their child a life by denying them another. Siddhartha’s (Shiv Palekar) grandmother has died, throwing into relief the many things he did not know about her or still doesn’t know about his mother Radha (Nadie Kammallaweera) his dead father, and what brought his family to Australia. Then, what would knowing his family history mean for this future with his new girlfriend Lily (Rarriwuy Hick)? It seems like this could be his choice until a call from his father Thirru (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), who has been in a Sri Lankan prison for 21 years, changes everything.
Radha is also deeply affected by her husband’s survival: she is thrown back in time to Colombo, the city she fought for and the family she lost when she had to leave. Kammallaweera is a powerhouse in her performance of deep generational pain and fear. Radha’s younger self, played by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, is fierce and outspoken about her country and opinions so to see her shift into privacy where her power is turned inwards and distorted was a subtle devastation. The character remains deeply loyal to her family and childhood home but circumstance has stunted her expression of this love.
The final core character of Thirru speaks directly to Australia’s politics and attitudes towards the persecuted. The story of disappearance, survival, and fleeing is not uncommon for refugees or specifically for the people who turn to Australia for asylum. While Thirru makes it here, to Villawood, our inhumane and illegal asylum seeker policies mean that most do not. Most men like Thirru, or there others he traveled with, will face further persecution, violence, and sometimes death at the hands of the Australian government. And, even as Thirru’s story implies a happy ending, the imagery of hands hanging through bars at Villawood Detention Centre shrinks the distance between here and the political prison in Colombo to nothing.
This production is masterful in its complexity of script, design, and execution. The 16-strong cast were in perfect harmony as they changed between place, time, and character, sometimes becoming a window or a wave to aid the story. The imagination of the production to find solutions for their storytelling displayed a real humour and playfulness with the craft of theatre-making.
With such a scope of time and space, the cast was required to be particularly dextrous, most particularly the receptionists, maids, fruit sellers, store owners, and other marginal characters that fill out a story. This ensemble of actors brought creativity to each of their roles and added heartily to the feeling of bubbling community and commitment that the production conveyed. Stand out performances included Prakash Belawadi as Apah, the obstinate patriarch and political power of Radha’s family or Jay Emmanuel as young Thirru whose lack of self-confidence nearly makes him a bystander in his own love story, endearingly, of course. But this cast is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Dale Ferguson’s set and costume design transported the audience immediately upon entering the vast courtyard space with running water, colourful bunting, a large gravel expanse, and the permeating scent of incense. The atmosphere was more like a community event or a festival rather than a stage production, emphasised by the Sri Lankan meal provided by Dish before the show. It all felt both grand and welcoming. This feeling was supported by the sound design from Stephen Gregory and Jessica Dunn where the use of a live band (Kiran Mudigonda and Janakan Raj), especially in the riot scenes with large explosions, allowed a dynamic and gripping soundscape.
Across the three hours of Counting and Cracking, the audience is invited to see it as so much more than a play but rather as an event, a community, and the sharing of lives. Eamon Flack’s direction of Shakthidharan’s new script beautifully balances the joy and laughter of love with life-long loss. It’s delicate work that equally doesn’t shy away from being brash when that is most true to life. This is the kind of theatre-making that is comfortable in both enormity and vulnerability and it is wonderful.
Counting and Cracking is running at Sydney Town Hall from January 15th – February 2nd. The show will then tour to the Adelaide Festival from March 2nd – 9th. For more information check here.