By Lali Gill
Let me start by saying that Counting and Cracking is a masterpiece of such astounding epic proportions, that one review will not fit all the praise this show deserves. I am in awe of this work and cannot recommend it highly enough.
When I arrived at Sydney Town Hall I was greeted by the incredible smells of Sri Lankan curries and sweet cakes. The lobby is transformed with wooden benches and walls filled with photos and maps of Sri Lanka. As I walked into the theatre space, the smell of incense filled the air. The show hadn’t even begun and I was already completely transported - this night of theatre was unlike any other I’d had before.
Counting and Cracking is the story of one Sri Lankan/Australian family, a story which spans four generations and multiple continents, unfolding before us over three riveting acts as we learn about family, loss, connection and war.
The play is performed on a thrust stage topped with gravel, which seems to lend itself to a somewhat timeless feel - especially in the huge space that is Sydney Town Hall - as it looks almost as though it’s floating in mid air. The story is performed English, Tamil and Sinhala, with the two non-English languages being seamlessly translated to us in real time by actors who are sitting or standing on the stage steps.
In the first act, we see actors holding props and set pieces for each other, creating a whimsical and relaxed vibe. We do not see this again after act one.
S. Shakthidharan’s writing is masterfully structured - dialogue perfectly naturalistic and often funny, yet always weaving in grand ideas and themes. The immaculate cast (no exceptions!) of Counting and Cracking elevates the text in such a way that we are made to feel as though they’re writing it as they’re speaking it, the story unfolding before our eyes, second by second. At times we move a little into melodrama, which feels completely necessary to successfully communicate a work of such grandeur and importance.
In a particularly outstanding scene, we’re witness to a genocide beginning from within a household - a series of urgent phone calls building up, along with music, tension and anxiety. The live music controls the tone throughout, integrating with characters’ movements and moods to further involve us. Eamon Flack’s direction of this entire show is inspired, detailed and moving. He seamlessly juggles a huge amount of elements in long, multifaceted scenes, never forgetting a detail and insuring our attention is always where he wants it. Despite the complex nature of the show, I never missed a beat.
Counting and Cracking is the definition of a team effort, utilising the skills and talents of at least fifty people, from six different countries, coming together over many years to create something truly epic. Even though it covers vast issues like Sri Lanka’s civil war and the ongoing refugee crisis, we never lose sight of the people at its centre and their heartbreakingly personal stories.
The story finishes back in Sydney, on a train leaving from Town Hall station, underneath the audience. I won’t spoil where the train stops, but that last stroke perfectly crystallises how this city has been shaped by generations of immigrants and refugees. We feel lucky to be part of this one family’s journey.
To all involved in the triumph that is Counting and Cracking, thank you for making this art, and thank you for speaking up.
Photo Credit: Brett Boardman
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.