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Review: Counting and Cracking at Carriageworks

Review by Giddy Pillai

I feel a little strange admitting this as a reviewer, but I’m not much into rating art. It seems to me that every creation is a gift carved from someone’s very soul, and my job is not to sit in judgment but simply to listen, respond, connect. If you ask me about my favourite book, movie, song or play, my answer shifts with my emotions – there’s art for every feeling, and so many beautiful things out there to connect with!

But I do have a list – a very short, slow-growing list – of art that I’m simply in awe of. The kind of work that dares to attempt something so wildly ambitious, and that pulls it off so phenomenally well and with so much humanity that I’m left wide-eyed and breathless in a way that will stay with me forever. Some of the things on my awe list are The Wire, the Before film trilogy, the musical Come from Away, the Lord of the Rings novel and – as of Sunday night – S. Shakthidharan’s award-winning theatrical masterpiece Counting and Cracking.

Counting and Cracking – co-created over a decade by Shakthidharan (as writer and associate director) and Belvoir St Theatre artistic director Eamon Flack (as director and associate writer) – is a piece of work that I can only describe as epic. It tells the story of a Sri Lankan-Australian family, set over two countries, four generations and five decades. Theirs is a story rich with love, trauma, politics, migration, joy, mathematics and civil war. It’s brought to life in five languages, by 16 actors playing 50 characters, a live band and a production team of 20, handpicked from all over the globe. It runs for a formidable three and a half hours, with two intermissions. 

In terms of ambition, Counting and Cracking blows the roof off and shoots for the moon. And thank goodness, because its story is so important to tell, and I really don’t think anything smaller would do it justice.

Siddhartha – or ‘Sid’ (Shiv Palekar) – is a 21 year old Australian-born Sri Lankan Tamil. His connection with Sri Lanka feels fragmented at best. His mother, Radha (Nadie Kammallaweera), doesn’t like to talk about her time there. Back in 1983, she just barely found her way onto a plane to Australia – alone, pregnant and fleeing the belly of a brutal civil war. It’s too painful to look back, so she keeps her eyes squarely focused on her new life in her new home. Sid can’t speak any Tamil, but he does remember the lullabies his grandmother would sing to him. Especially right now, because she’s just passed away. 

We meet Sid and Radha in the midst of the funeral rites – a series of rituals that seem foreign to Sid and that don’t feel like a proper goodbye. That evening, he returns to the house he rents in Coogee (close to uni and as far away from his Western Sydney roots as possible). Grieving, and unsure of where he fits in the world, he runs into Yolngu law student Lily (Abbie-lee Lewis), who’s on a similar wavelength. They talk about the water, the Milky Way and their place in it all, and a budding romance begins to grow.

Radha grieves in her own way: unable to confront her complex feelings about her mother’s death head on, she pulls out every trick in the book to petition Sid to move back home. When this fails, she keeps herself busy by dramatically throwing out his cricket gear and unleashing the full force of her substantial personality on good-natured Ismet (Rodney Afif), who has shown up on her doorstep to install an air conditioner. Ismet is undeterred – he leaves her with a bag of Turkish delight, and asks her out on a date.

But an unexpected phone call from Colombo disrupts everything, bringing the full weight of the past crashing back into Radha’s and Sid’s lives. We’re transported back in time to Radha’s youth back in Sri Lanka. Young Radha (Radhika Mudaliyar) is the brilliant, brave and beloved baby in a wealthy and well-connected political family. Her grandfather, known to all as ‘Apah’ (Prakash Belawadi) is the only Tamil member of a predominantly Sinhalese cabinet. He’s an egalitarian and a passionate advocate for a unified Sri Lanka. At one point the government stood alongside him. But over a 30-year period, we watch Apah’s dream slip further and further out of reach, as both Sinhalese and Tamil extremism grows, and the government bolsters itself with increasingly draconian executive powers. 

Even so, friendships blossom and endure across the lines drawn by politics, race and social class. Despite the efforts of Radha’s grandmother (Sukania Venugopal) to keep politics away from the home, Apah’s courtyard is the arena of endless political debate. But it’s also a place of warmth and acceptance, where neighbouring frenemy and Apah’s former party-mate Vinsanda (Dushan Philips) can drop by to butt heads over policy in one breath, and coo adoringly over the new baby in the next.

Counting and Cracking isn’t a linear story. The narrative flips between Sri Lanka from 1956 to 1983 and Australia in 2004, to great effect. This allows us to appreciate – even if subconsciously – the threads that tie the past to the present, weaving rich intergenerational stories. Radha has shut her memories away, and so Sid has heard very little about his Sri Lankan family, but we see their warmth, their open-mindedness and their intellectual curiosity reflected in the way in which he navigates the world. 

Dale Ferguson’s beautifully minimalistic set helps to emphasise the connection between past and present. A bare stage resembling an outdoor public square morphs from Western Sydney apartment, to Coogee beach, to train station, to bustling Colombo courtyard with just a few simple props, moved into place by the actors. This, combined with the fact that the cast shift between roles and frequently step in as translators for each other, creates a real sense of connectedness and unity. Atmospheric lighting by Damien Cooper, a rich soundscape woven by composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory and the live band, and the judicious use of incense combine to immerse all our senses in each location that we visit. The effect is magical, and unlike anything I’ve experienced in a theatre before.

Script and direction are both masterfully on point. I won’t give away the plot except to say that this is a beast of a play, both in its length and its subject matter, but it flows so beautifully that the three and a half hours fly past. Incredibly, it manages to do justice to its heaviest content without feeling draining. It is as powerful and affecting as it needs to be – there are many emotional moments, and they hit hard – but there’s plenty of organic joy and humour in the mix too and the overall effect feels cathartic, even as someone with no personal connection to the Sri Lankan civil war. The key events in this story may be uniquely Sri Lankan and grounded in a specific period of time but, as Shakthidharan and Flack have both said in interviews, family, home, the passage of time between generations and the search for love, connection and reconciliation are universal. 

The two intermissions are expertly placed and serve as more than just bathroom breaks: they divide the play into its three act structure, and allow its well-timed emotional peaks to land with the breathing space needed for them to truly sink in. It almost feels like being immersed in a live action miniseries – one in which every episode sticks the landing and leaves you wanting more. If you’re feeling peckish in the breaks, you can venture into the foyer and treat yourself to delicious Sri Lankan street eats served up by Colombo Social (who also offer a pre-show sit-down dinner).

This production really is a team effort. It’s clear that a lot of care went into picking the right collaborators, and it pays off in spades. The cast, individually and collectively, are exceptional and perfectly in sync with each other. It feels like watching a real family come together. Each and every technical element adds texture and richness, and this is achieved in such a harmonious and organic way that I’m long out of the theatre before I can even begin to pick the production choices apart – sitting in the audience I just feel totally, completely immersed. The live music along with thoughtful choreography by Indian classical dance legend (and Shakthidharan’s mother) Anandavalli is evocative. I suspect it’s likely to be especially so for anyone familiar with South Asian culture – where music and dance have an intimate historical connection with theatre. 

That’s another thing that makes this play unique and refreshing as far as mainstage Australian theatre goes. The focus isn’t on telling a story that’s tailor-made for an Australian audience – it’s on telling a story in an authentic voice, trusting that this process will produce something that’s real enough for audiences of all backgrounds to connect to. And it does. This is a migration story that’s bigger, richer, more nuanced and more multifaceted than I’ve seen in Australian theatre to date, and we’re all the better for that. Shakthidharan says it better than I can: this is ‘a story in which migrants are not asked to discard parts of themselves to fit in, but instead are asked to present their full selves, to expand our idea of what this country can be’.

Counting and Cracking is playing at Carriageworks until 21 July. It’s very nearly sold out, but there are a handful of tickets left, and if you get the chance to go along I can’t recommend it highly enough. After the show leaves Sydney it’s touring to New York and, though it’s rightfully been collecting awards and accolades everywhere it journeys, the sheer scale of the production makes it unclear when – or if – it will return. I’m so glad I had the chance to witness such a special piece of Australian theatrical history, and I’m deeply grateful to this company for dreaming big, creating this masterpiece, and paving the way for more diverse voices and more mould-breaking stories to flourish on the main stage. 

Image Credit: Pia Johnson


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