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Review: The Jungle and the Sea at Belvoir St Theatre

Review by Anja Bless

It’s extremely refreshing to see an increasing diversity of performers and stories being told in some of Australia’s most prestigious theatres. The Jungle and the Sea and its spectacular group of performers is an emblematic example of this exciting shift in Australian theatre. From the multi-award-winning team behind Counting and Cracking, The Jungle and the Sea follows the story of a Tamil family, thrust into civil war in Sri Lanka and their journey to find home, peace, and each other over the course of 27 years. Written and directed by S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack, The Jungle and the Sea is currently showing at Belvoir St Theatre and is a must-see in Belvoir’s current season.

Using the dynamism of a revolving stage to capture the ever-evolving nature of change and the rapid pace of life, love, and loss, The Jungle and the Sea gives a glimpse of life in northern Sri Lanka in times of peace before the shock of the beginnings of a rekindled civil war. It shows how lives are unjustly taken, young people radicalised, and families torn apart – forced to make impossible choices when there is nowhere left to run. The Sri Lankan civil war is a story not told often enough, how greed and lust for power leads to divisions based on ethnicity, and no side is innocent as they take away the lives and livelihoods of innocent people. The Jungle and the Sea is extremely moving in its storytelling of these themes, and considerate in the way it navigates distressing scenes which for many Australians and Sri Lankans are all too recent.

Stand out moments include a dinner between father (Prakash Belawadi) and daughter (Emma Harvie) as they celebrate her graduation from an Australian university, after 15 years separated from the rest of their family in Sri Lanka. This touching scene uses comedic timing and the subtle grace of the bond of a father and daughter who only have each other to lean on, to explore the challenges of being alienated from your family, navigating a new culture and society, and the growing pains of children becoming adults. Also poignant is a marriage scene in the middle of a war zone, the sound design from Steve Francis transports the audience into the middle of the jungle, listening to crickets, wildlife, and distant bombs as marriage vows are read from Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and pop-culture texts. The loyalty and bond between two daughters and their mother is beautifully rendered in the anguish and determination of Madhu (Nadie Kammallaweera) and Abi (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) as they care for their mother, Gowrie (Anandavalli), and try to seek out their brother (Biman Wimalaratne) to unite their family once again in spite of the bombs falling around them.

Helping to transport the audience to the rice patties, jungles, and beaches of Sri Lanka are the live musicians, Indu Balachandran and Arjunan Puveendran, never faltering through the dynamic and fast-paced performance, with impeccable timing and guided by the compositions of Puveendran. At three hours long, it is a marathon performance for these musicians and the actors, and as the third act progresses it also begins to feel draining for the audience. There is little to fault in The Jungle and the Sea, however there are some scenes, largely within the third act, which feel unnecessarily drawn out. Given the time jumps through Acts One and Two, the additional hour for the final events of the story feel less justified. And as this play explores serious and often traumatic scenes, this does lead to some emotional fatigue which seemed to leave the audience more detached from the power and poignancy of the performance than they should have been.

Nonetheless, The Jungle and the Sea is an important contribution to Australian theatre. Contributing stories and performers that deserve a place centre stage. This is not one to miss, and it will be exciting to see what this team produces next.

Image Credit: Sriram Jeyaraman


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