DESPITE having some dear long standing friends who originate from Sri Lanka, I must confess to knowing very little about this small South Asian island.
As a young philatelist, I do remember that when it was formerly known as Ceylon it had some glorious stamps. Travel supplements also marvel at its beauty and offer it up as an on/off holiday destination – depending on what’s happening there politically and its many years of civil war which destabilised and isolated it .
Currently of course the latest Sri Lankan president has fled along with others, whilst locals apparently peacefully occupy his palace, taking turns to swim in his pool.
That being pretty much the sum of my knowledge, ‘Counting and Cracking’ at the REP was therefore a massive eye-opener on many levels.
This production has transferred straight from the Lyceum Theatre at the main Edinburgh Festival to be a major part of our own Birmingham 2022 Festival.
The play is semi-autobiographical and written by Sri Lankan/Australian S Shakthidharan who also associate directs alongside fellow Australian Eamon Flack.
Flack is Artistic Director at the renowned ‘Belvoir’ company in Sydney.
Counting and Cracking is more saga than a simple play – it follows four generations of one family over half a century from 1956 to 2004. It flits back and forth in time and place between Sydney, Australia and Colombo, Sri Lanka.
In fairness it could be said to be a bit of an endurance test too as it runs for three and a half hours – but in my opinion what it lacks in some judicious cutting, it more than makes up for in energy, as the talented cast from six different countries combine in one glorious company.
The pivotal character to the saga is Radha, the feisty grand-daughter of Apah, an important government minister. Radha is played magnificently by both the elder, Nadie Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as the younger woman.
Radha causes consternation in the family when she refuses an arranged marriage to another politician’s son, in order to follow her heart and marry his younger – and therefore less ‘important’ – brother
Prakash Belawadi plays Apah, with natural charisma and an air of dignity that is always compelling; especially so as we witness his authority falling apart in the final stages of the Tamil-Sinhalese disputes.
There are many layers and back stories but so cleverly are they entwined that it’s not a mind struggle to keep up.
The big contrast is between Radha’s life in Sri Lanka as a wealthy politician’s daughter and as a pregnant refugee claiming asylum in Australia.
At the start of the play we meet her with her grown up son Siddhartha, (played with endearing vim and vigour by Shiv Palekar), as she coaxes him to perform a traditional sea ritual with his grandmother’s ashes.
Siddhartha lives a happy student life in Coogee, a beach town suburb of Sydney. Like us, he learns about his heritage piece-by-piece, when a phone call across continents brings history flooding back, culminating in meeting the father both he and his mother thought was long dead.
There is some imaginative lighting from Damien Cooper, which uses every available space both on and off stage at some point and a simple but effective set from Dale Ferguson that fits all places.
A trio plays an underscore in one corner of the stage throughout the show aiding the time and continent transformations – as does the incense clouds aroma that wafts across the stage intermittently.
Part of the reason for the length of the show is that it is in three languages at times, English, Tamil and Sinhalese.
Actors translate it at the sides of the stage acting like human subtitles and making us part of – rather than apart from – the action.
A line that constantly occurs from Apah is “Two languages, one country – one language, two countries.” That, it seems, is in essence what the blood has been tragically been spilt over in all these years.
I couldn’t help thinking that when this play finishes back in 2004, it was a time two decades ago when refugees were largely welcomed into Australia, unlike today when those that do make it are held in camps on remote islands out of public view.
In fact there are so many important topics covered in this ground-breaking piece of theatre that it deserves good audiences. Because of its curtain down time, late night public transport could be a problem; so my advice is not to be put off but drive or get someone to drive you, form a group or share a taxi.
I urge all theatre lovers to make the effort – this is a unique opportunity to be part of something very special – I feel wiser and quite empowered by the experience.
Counting and Cracking runs at Birmingham REP until Saturday, August 27. Click here for times, tickets and more information
Review by Euan Rose
Euan Rose reviews