Above – Radhika Mudaliyar, Nadie Kammallaweera & Kaivalya-Suvarna. Cover – Rajan Velu & Prakash Belawadi. Photos – Pia Johnson

Lucky Sydney audiences have a second chance to experience Belvoir’s magnificent production of Counting and Cracking, a truly memorable theatre event that is full of verve and rich in meaning.

A standout at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, Counting and Cracking swept up an impressive 14 literary and theatre awards. Its success has extended beyond Australia, with tours to the Edinburgh and Birmingham Festivals. This year, it has already captivated audiences in Melbourne and is now in Sydney at Carriageworks in Redfern before heading to make its mark at the esteemed Public Theatre in New York.

Assembling a uniformly outstanding cast of 16 – mostly actors of Sri Lankan background and Tamil speaking – Director, Eamon Flack and Writer/Associate Director, S. Shakthidharan have created a large-scale festival piece bursting with humanity, humour, romance, history and politics in the tradition of the great Indian epic novels such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

It is three and a half hours long, but don’t be daunted – after all, that’s nothing compared with Peter Brook’s famous 24-hour-long theatre production of The Mahabharata. With two intervals and a narrative that is entertaining, moving and utterly riveting, the time flies. The directors’ style of imaginative and playful theatre-making, on a minimal set, is a delight to watch. They shift easily between depicting Tamil traditions, dance and ritual and the contemporary reality of life in a small flat in Pendle Hill in Sydney. Each scene is as vivid as the last. With simple props – a roll of plastic, baskets of chillis, marigolds and sliced papayas, the directors simply and evocatively conjure scenes.

The brilliance of the writing and direction is that, although it is a story about Sri Lanka’s recent history, it is always told at a profoundly personal level.

The reality of living between two cultures is a central idea of the play and applies to many immigrant and refugee Australian stories. It is a story about belonging. The play begins in the present with Radha and her son Siddhartha (Sid) dispersing Radha’s mother’s ashes into Sydney’s Georges River. This is a Tamil funeral ritual that Sid doesn’t understand but participates in to please his mother.

Radha, powerfully played by Nadie Kammallaweera, is a single mother living in a flat in Sydney’s Western Suburbs after fleeing the Civil War in 1983. Sid (Shiv Palekar), conceived in Sri Lanka and born in Sydney, is living near the beach in Coogee and studying Media Studies at UNSW. Kammallaweera and Palekar are both outstanding in portraying the complexities of straddling two worlds. To contain her grief, Radha resolutely puts her past behind her. While Sid identifies as Australian, he is curious to know about his family’s history. Apart from knowing a few Tamil lullabies from his grandmother, Sid speaks no Tamil and knows very little about his mother’s life before she came to Sydney.

Spanning 1956 to 2004, Counting and Cracking is a family saga that depicts the changes in the Sri Lankan political landscape. The action shifts between the present and the past. Early in the first act, you might think this is a family story, but we are then taken into Radha’s past life in Sri Lanka and we realise she is from an important family as the story broadens out into a historical drama.

Much of the story reflects S. Shakthidharan’s own family history. Like Apah, brilliantly played by Prakash Belawadi, his grandfather was born a farmer, studied at Oxford and became the only Tamil in the first independent government in Sri Lanka. Apah is the moral beacon of the play and Belawadi’s tour de force performance imbues him with staggering grace, dignity and integrity.

Counting and Cracking depicts how a once-cherished democracy splinters with the rise of a populist and authoritarian government that marginalises, then brutalises the minority Tamil community, resulting in a savage civil war. The play’s title refers to the dangers of what can happen to democracy: first, you count heads, and if that doesn’t work, you must crack them. So many of the play’s political concerns have contemporary international resonances.

Language is an important element of this play and at least five languages are spoken which are translated by actors sitting on the sidelines. Language is also important to a sense of cultural identity. In one scene, the new Singhalese majority government changes the official language from English to Singhalese, marginalising the Tamil community, effectively cutting off educational and employment opportunities and undermining the value of Tamil culture.

Those of us in the diverse audience without much knowledge of recent Sri Lankan history had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about it while being thoroughly entertained. While many tragic events are depicted, the storytelling remains joyous and connected with the hope of new lives built in our own immigrant nation. This multi-award-winning epic, running at Carriageworks until July 21, is not to be missed.

Event details

Belvoir presents
Counting and Cracking
by S. Shakthidharan with Eamon Flack

Director Eamon Flack with S. Shakthidharan

Venue: Carriageworks | Eveleigh NSW
Dates: 28 June – 21 July 2024
Bookings: belvoir.com.au

Co-produced with Kurinji

Most read Sydney reviews

More from this author