Theatre – Counting and Cracking
Venue: Sydney Town Hall
Written By: S. Shakthidharan
Directed By: Eamon Flack
The colourful Counting and Cracking is completely absorbing from beginning to end. An oft-told tale of a literal and spiritual odyssey in a country of migrants like Australia, this production, the result of collaboration between Co-Curious and the Belvoir Street Theatre, brings its themes of home and exile, of reconciliation of past and present and of flight and refuge with a fresh energy, generosity and passion.
The co-opting of Sydney Town Hall as a theatre space is a bold but successful move, its vastness befitting an epic tale told through four generations of a Sri Lankan family. The audience is already buzzing with anticipation as they eat their Sri Lankan meals in the foyer beneath the glittering chandelier, and then file into the tiered wooden benches with brightly coloured cushions that surround the stage on three sides.
The stage itself, a lovely reddish-pink, becomes Haigh Park or an apartment in Pendle Hill, a grand house or street in Colombo, each context indicated by a symbolic piece of furniture and place and time by overhead signs operated from a compartment above the stage. A second compartment above the stage houses the musicians, Kranthi Kiran Mudigoni, Janakan Ray and Venkhatesh Sritharan (score, Stefan Gregory) whose accompaniment not only supports and punctuates the action below but gives additional authenticity to the cross-cultural theatre experience.
While these compartments are stage arrangements, helping to fill the vastness, at the same time they gave the impression that human action is small and the forces that govern it large. At one point, later in the play, one of the compartments is used to emphasise the distance between the elected government and the hopes and needs of its Tamil population, represented by the patriarch, Apah (an authoritative Prakash Belawadi). It is Apah who gives the play its title, as he has claims to have learned from the British experience that ‘Democracy means the counting of heads, within certain limits, and the cracking of heads beyond those limits.’
But it is not only the cracking of heads but also the cracking of hearts. As the play unfolds we learn of the great loss suffered by the middle-aged and spikey Radha (an engaging Nadee Kammallaweera) Apah’s granddaughter, whom we first meet on the banks of the Georges River in Western Sydney. In a warm and witty scene, Radha half-cajoles, half-bullies her Australian born son, Siddhartha aka Sid, (a sensitive Shiv Palekar) into releasing his grandmother’s ashes into the river. With sympathy, we see the familiar and hurtful struggle between generations, exacerbated by the cultural expectations of Radha, and the cultural confusion of Sid.
We remain deeply invested in both the older and younger Radha (a touchingly idealistic Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) and in Sid as the revelation of his mother’s past is set in motion by a phone call from Sri Lanka. In bringing alive that past, a genuine effort is made to show the complexity of the Sri Lankan political situation, and why in the ensuing turmoil, a pregnant Radha chose to migrate to Australia for the sake of her unborn child – for the future. Australia is gently and justly reminded that its own democracy should not be defined by its limits.
Wonderfully inclusive, the play embraces a Turkish migrant and suitor to Radha (an ebullient Hazem Shammas), a humanitarian journalist, Hasa (a convincing Nicholas Brown) and Lily (an engaging Rarriwuy Hick), a young Yolgnu woman, whose own struggles to bridge the gap between her heritage and ‘Western ways’ helps Sid find a balance between past and present. Meriting a mention as highlights for the audience are Sid and Lily’s swimming expedition (enthusiastic laughter) and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash’s lovely traditional dance (rapt attention).
Congratulations to Eamon Flack, S. Shakthidran, and every one involved in bringing this amazing theatre experience to audiences eager for insight into the many faces of Australia. And thank you for putting Sri Lanka onto our personal maps.