BWW REVIEW: History, Homeland and Healing Is Presented In The Wonderful New Australian Work COUNTING & CRACKING
Tuesday 15th January 2018, 7pm, Sydney Town Hall
Connection across continents, time and cultures plays out in S. Shakthidhran's bold new play COUNTING & CRACKING. Directed by Eamon Flack, this collaboration between Belvoir St Theatre and Co-Curious is an engaging large scale production that turns the grand Centennial Hall of the 19th century Sydney Town Hall into a Sri Lankan town hall.
Grounded in elements of truth drawn from conversations with Sri Lankan's from around the world and his own family history, Shakthidharan has created a wonderful story of a fictional family torn apart by the 20th century conflict in Sri Lanka. The present day is in 2004 and a 21 year old Media Studies student Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar) or Sid as he likes to be called is performing the ritual distribution of his Ammamma (his mother's mother) Dhamayanthi's, ashes in the George's river under the instruction of long-time family friend and priest Ayar (Gandhi MacIntyre) whilst his Amma (mother) Radha ( Nadie Kammallaweera (2004)/Vaishnavi Suryaprakash(1977-1983) looks on and at time scolds. Siddhartha has little connection to his mother's homeland as she won't talk of the past, a place she fled whilst pregnant, believing her husband, Sid's father, Thirru (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan), had been killed during the Black July riots of 1983 which stemmed from the government's anti-Tamil movement. Whilst Sid is forming new connections, particularly with Lily(Rarriwuy Hick), a law student from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, a mysterious man in Sri Lanka is being released from a Colombo prison. How this man's life and that of Sid's are connected unfolds across Dale Ferguson's (set and costume designer) generous thrust stage. Radha's past unfolds, from her own birth in 1957 to her strong bond with her grandfather, mathematician and politician Apah (Prakash Belawadi), a respected leader in the community who sought for accessibility of education for the lower classes and most importantly a united Sri Lanka which respected that there were different cultures and languages living together on the island nation.
Flack expresses the woven stories wonderfully with the aid of painted signs, manoeuvred on gates above the rear entrance, setting the time and place of scenes. A purpose built wooden arena is built around the long raise stage with the rear façade incorporating balconies for musicians Stefan Gregory (Composer and sound designer) Janakan Raj and Kranthi Kiran Mudigonda and additional performance space. Running water, necessary for the rituals that take place, is incorporated into the sides of the stage and also provides a subtle ambient sound which helps tie the work to the seas that ultimately connect Sri Lanka and Sydney. The set dressing is simple and at times inventive, particularly the expression of Coogee beach which delighted the opening night audience. Ferguson' costume design easily separates the contemporary setting and the past with a beautiful use of traditional Sri Lankan attire that ranges from simple white cloths to the elegant silks.
Flack has been authentic in his casting, drawing 16 actors from around the world. Whilst the majority of the work is in English, Tamil and Sinhala is also used, translated by actors shadowing the characters from the side of the raised stage. This use of languages also helps to reinforce the impact of Sinhala Only policy as even those that don't understand the languages can understand that Apah is needing to translate conversations between Tamil fruit seller Bala (Rajan Velu) and Berwala maid Nihinsa (Nipuni Sharada(1957-1983)/Sukania Venugopal(2004)).
The story is moving and is told with an honesty and relatability that crosses cultures along with a delightful and at times surprising humour. Kammallaweera's expression of the older Radha and Sukania Venugopal's portrayal of Radha's grandmother Aacha brilliantly capture nagging maternal figures that are universally relatable. Belawadi and Monroe Reimers , as Apah's "Personal Friend, Political Enemy" Vinsanda, capture intelligent men that still have an element of the roguish boys about them as the argue of the future of their country then brush it of as just part of the game of politics. Shakthidharan captures the challenge of belonging and feeling alien where you live through Radha, Sid and Lily whilst also reminding the audience that the sense of belonging and home can also be affected by your heritage, even if you've never seen the place of your ancestors. The power of the maternal figure is presented with a fierce strength by Venugopal as she reigns in Apah's behaviour and runs her household better than the men can run the country. The strength of love at all different stages of life is presented beautifully, from Aacha and Apaa's relationship that flourished out of an arranged marriage; the young Radha who defied tradition and family wishes to marry for love; the new love that crosses cultures between Sid and Lily; and the love between generations that wants to protect, from mothers and sons like Nihinsa and Maithri (Rajan Velu) and grandchild and grandparent like Radha who stays with Apah after her parents have left to travel and Aacha has passed away.
All performances are strong with stand outs from Nadie Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as the older and younger Radha, Shiv Palekar as Siddhartha and Prakash Belawadi as Apah. Flack and movement and fight director Nigel Poulton ensure that the work is fluid with good transitions considering the size of the stage. Stefan Gregory's music composition and sound designprovides a wonderful soundscape with ethereal violin and percussion paired with sounds of the cities and the wildlife layered in. Damien Cooper's lighting is creative in focusing the attention on the stage, bathing the arena in light or picking out characters positioned around the venue.
COUNTING AND CRACKING is a wonderful achievement for all involved and is a must see as part of Belvoir and Sydney Festival's season. Whilst the theatre component is traditional in the sense of watching a performance from a seat, the layout feels more intimate and the 3 and a half our experience (two intervals are included) is preceded by a Sri Lankan supper provided by Dish Dining and Events, included in the ticket price. Additional food and beverages are available for purchase including a cocktail and cake from a street vendor style cart wheeled onstage during the first interval. Regardless of your background or the extent of your knowledge about Sri Lanka this is a must see theatrical experience.
COUNTING AND CRACKING
Sydney Town Hall