Counting and Cracking

Counting and Cracking
By S. Shakthidharan. Belvoir and Co-Curious. Sydney Festival. Sydney Town Hall, Jan 11 – Feb 2, 2019 and Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds, Mar 2 - 9.

Sydney Town Hall has been transformed into a long, thrust stage surrounded by wooden tiered seating spread with brightly covered foam cushions. Colourful peaked gables arch above the lighting loom. Expectant patrons savour delicately flavoured lamb biryani before making their way to their seats for Belvoir and Co-Curious’ mammoth undertaking of S. Shakthidharan’s family saga, Counting and Cracking.

Sixteen actors play 50 characters in a new Australian story that traces four generations of a family from Colombo to Pendle Hill; from Australia, a land of refuge, to Sri Lanka a land trying to stay united. It’s a story “about reconciliation within families, across countries, across generations.” It’s a story about symbols and memories, traditions and change, adaptation and acceptance, fragility and strength.

In his program notes, Shakthidharan contextualises the back story to the production. “Ten years ago I was hungry. Hungry to learn about my mother’s homeland. To know my history. So I started on a journey that had no clear end”.

Ten years of reading, travelling, enquiring and listening led him to a story “… about parents and children. About coming together and breaking apart and coming together again … a story that had the power to help my mother reconcile with her homeland. To connect people across deep divides … to collapse time and join continents”.

I lean on Shakthidharan’s own words because of their clarity and translucence, qualities that are equally impressive in his script and the complex characters that people the many scenes that connect past, present, and hopeful future. This is a chronicle that could be about any of the families who have sought refuge in Australia, leaving behind ravaged homelands, cruel regimes, lost loved ones. Its appeal is universally touching – but it is written in a way that emphasises the resilience and humour that are so important in the process of change.

The production is a work of collaborative creativity. Director Eamon Flack describes it as “an almighty effort by a great coalition of people” over almost six years of travel and discussion and organisation. Shakthidharan, Flack and their enormous imaginative team have envisaged and realised a production that is vibrant and innovative. Designer Dale Ferguson has used simplicity and symbolism to establish changes in time and place. Flack has backed this with fast scene changes and carefully choreographed action. Actors take many changes in role as well as translators of the five languages that intersperse the script. Water trickling along channels beside the stage emphasises the symbolism of water that connects cultures. A full size seesaw symbolises a park. A Sri Lankan chair links with the past. An internet connection symbolises the breakdown of distance.

Male elders argue political differences and the havoc that is wrought. Women fight it with the power of family and love. Gradually, though a past of division and terror, persecution and destruction is revealed, this production affirms that we can rebuild, reconnect and make new connections that reach across historical rifts and boundaries.

This is a theatrical marathon that tells a story that is vibrant and expressive – one where the energy and vitality of the cast is cemented with their intimate identity and belief in the many characters they portray. It is a production that will ring true for many Australians., one that Eamon Flack describes as “an Australian story … a land of refuge and new beginnings”.

Carol Wimmer.

Photographer: Brett Boardman

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