Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – Feb 2, 2019 | Ridley Centre (Adelaide Showgrounds, South Australia) Mar 2 – 9, 2019
Playwright: S. Shakthidharan
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Prakash Belawadi, Nicholas Brown, Jay Emmanuel, Rarriwuy Hick, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Nadie Kammallaweera, Ahi Karunaharan, Monica Kumar, Gandhi MacIntyre, Shiv Palekar, Monroe Reimers, Hazem Shammas, Nipuni Sharada, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Rajan Velu, Sukania Venugopal
Images by Brett Boardman
It was 1983 when Radha first came to Australia, escaping persecution in Sri Lanka during the racial riots of Black July. With her husband killed in the midst of unrest, Radha was left with no choice but to flee alone and pregnant, arriving in Sydney to put down new roots in a foreign land. S. Shakthidharan’s Counting & Cracking is a very big play, ambitious and benevolent, rhapsodic in its attempts to uncover the whole truth about a woman, observed as a maternal figure from the playwright’s vantage point. Shakthidharan’s work is warm and witty, generous in its seismic attempts to explain everything, taking us through half a century of untold stories to reach an understanding about the people we are today.
It is often a gripping production, directed by Eamon Flack who renders marvellously the play’s more domestic and romantic scenes. Relationships are beautifully cultivated, between powerful characters, with a convincing sentimentality that encourages the audience to invest deeply, our attention and our emotions, right from the very beginning. Political dimensions are communicated less lucidly, but we are able to gather sufficient information for the narrative drive to maintain interest.
Designer Dale Ferguson’s transformation of Sydney Town Hall’s colonial interior, into a festively radiant Sri Lankan space of congregation and celebration, is a sight to behold. Majestic and monumental, it embraces our bodies and psyches, holding us firmly inside its milieu, to have us luxuriate in all its extravagant expressions. Contrastingly, acoustics are a sore point for the production, with sound engineering unable to overcome the echoey vastness of the old building, thus resulting in occasional dissipation of dialogue. There are however auditory delights to be had, in the form of Stefan Gregory’s score, performed live by a trio of musicians (Kranthi Kiran Mudigonda, Janakan Raj and Venkhatesh Sritharan) whose expert accompaniment provides us with unparalleled sensuality and soulfulness.
Actors Nadie Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash share the lead role, both captivating and extremely likeable, allowing us to fall under Radha’s spell for the show’s entire duration. Their combined dynamism gives Counting & Cracking complexity and authenticity, and we find ourselves moved by a tale that is at once unique, yet spiritually universal. Sukania Venugopal is memorable as Aacha, the vivacious matriarch who brings colour and effervescence to the stage with every exhilarating entrance. Radha’s son Siddhartha provides the cultural anchor for this Australian story, performed by a very compelling Shiv Palekar, whose luminous confidence proves to be as impressive as it is alluring.
It is always demanded of migrants that we prove our worth. Counting & Cracking is in some ways an exercise in showing the establishment that we contribute at least as much as the others; it makes a statement about our Australianness, arguing against incessant lies about immigration being nothing but a burden on this society. More valuable is the play’s reclamation of identity, in its insistence that the portrayal of Australian lives must include histories and origins that are routinely excluded and denied. As humans, we must always strive for unity, but cohesion must bear the unequivocal acceptance of difference, hard as it may be.