Review: The Jungle And The Sea (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 12 – Dec 18, 2022
Playwrights: S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack
Directors: S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack
Cast: Anandavalli, Prakash Belawadi, Emma Harvie, Nadie Kammallaweera, Jacob Rajan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Rajan Velu, Biman Wimalaratne
Images by Sriram Jeyaraman

Theatre review

The Jungle and The Sea tells the story of one Sri Lankan family, during the twenty-five years of civil war that left a nation devastated. Written and directed by the formidable pairing of S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack, the play is astonishing with the depth of emotion it elicits. A profoundly moving work, incorporating influences from the ancient texts of The Mahābhāratha and Antigone, our humanity is engaged at the most fundamental levels, through a tale of survival and of human ruin. Discussions on war require of us to cut through all that is superfluous; The Jungle and The Sea certainly gets to the core of what matters, giving Australian audiences a much needed reprieve from lives adorned with hollow distraction and incessant superficiality.

Performed in the English language, along with what could be considered an Australian sensibility, the production is a seamless meld of cultures that makes palpably authentic, what some might classify a foreign story. Style, form and tone are all inextricably Sri Lankan and Australian, consistent and simultaneous. Its theatrical language is both traditional and new, allowing access to the past, whilst creating meaning for the present. It values what a marginalised culture brings to the table, imbues it with agency and lets it occupy centre stage, in ways that we may all be captivated by this acutely consequential tale.

Set design by Dale Ferguson conflates the brutality of war with the tenderness of nature, for a performance space that is unobtrusive, yet intensely evocative. Ferguson’s costumes instil dignity for the show’s characters, who suffer the ravages of war but are nonetheless indomitable. Veronique Bennett’s lights are sensitive to the minute fluctuations in mood and timbre of the piece, always precise in helping our sight connect with sentiments that are varied and nuanced. Music by Arjunan Puveendran and sound by Steve Francis, are marvellously rendered to guide us on this odyssey of sorrow and salvation, with live musicians Indu Balachandran and Puveendran offering some of the most exquisite accompaniment one could hope to encounter.

A sensational cast of eight, each with remarkable skill and insight, takes us on a journey of unparalleled poignancy and grace. Kalieaswari Srinivasan shines as the spirited and defiant Abi, memorable for delivering irresistible drama, and for making the Antigone-inspired character an utterly endearing young woman. Prakash Belawadi demonstrates extraordinary versatility in various roles, impressive not only with the flawless timing he executes quite effortlessly, but also with the stirring humanity he introduces to all his parts. An extended scene between Belawadi and Emma Harvie as father and daughter Siva and Lakshmi, is unforgettable for its intricate weaving of comedy and trepidation, incredible for the heartiness of laughter they generate in the midst of great tragedy. Additionally, Harvie’s disarming naturalism brings to the show a resonance that only increases its believability.

Anandavalli who serves as performer, choreographer and cultural advisor, opens the show with a mesmerising dance, and as matriarch Gowrie brings an understated but powerful dimension to the truth-telling that is underway. Nadie Kammallaweera too is a strikingly elegant presence, able to convey rich layers of intention, that lay behind a thoughtful restraint. Jacob Rajan, Rajan Velu and Biman Wimalaratne are all accomplished actors tackling a range of support characters, in a show that speaks from a place of immense sincerity.

The Jungle and The Sea is heart breaking, but it is not merely catharsis that can be derived from what it expresses. After months of attack on Ukraine by Russia commencing in February this year of 2022, a missile struck Poland at the village of Przewodów, on the day the play opened in Sydney. It is clear that humans repeat mistakes, no matter how grave the consequences. Trauma makes us resort to denial, for it is natural that we shift attention away from pain, but stories are all we have, to remind us of the bad things we keep doing. War seems always to be bolstered by lies. Reaching for the truth, is perhaps the only tool for most of us, to help turn things for the good.

www.belvoir.com.au