Monday, January 21, 2019


Counting & Cracking by S. Shakthidharan.  A collaboration between Belvoir and Co-Curious in the Sydney Festival, at Sydney Town Hall, January 11 – February 2, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Director – Eamon Flack; Cultural and Costume Advisor – Anandavalli; Set and Costume Designer – Dale Ferguson; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory; Movement and Fight Director – Nigel Poulton; Accent Coach – Linda Nicholls-Gidley.

Prakash Belawadi – Apah and others
Nicholas Brown – Hasanga and others
Jay Emmanuel – Young Thirru and others
Rarriwuy Hick – Lily and others
Antonythasan Jesuthasan – Older Thirru and others
Nadie Kammallaweera – Older Radha
Ahilan Karunaharan – Sunil and others
Monica Kumar – Young Dhamayanthi, Swathi and others
Ghandi Macintyre – Priest, Hopper Cart Man and others
Shiv Palekar – Siddhartha and others
Monroe Reimers – Jailor, Vinsanda and others
Hazem Shammas – Ismet, Mr Levy and others
Nipuni Sharada – Young Nihinsa
Vaishnavi Suryaprakesh – Young Radha
Rajan Velu – Fundraiser, Bala, Maithra and others
Sukania Venugopal – Older Nihinsa, Aacha, Older Dhamayanthi and others

Kiran Mudigonda; Janakan Raj; Venkhatesh Sritharan

Counting & Cracking: stage setting in Sydney Town Hall
Photo: Frank McKone

The gestation of this play has been very long, since S. Shakthidharan’s Australia Council Young Artists Initiative grant in 2008, then the beginning of collaboration with Belvoir in 2013 and travel around the world including gaining family permissions in Australia (Yolngu), Sri Lanka (Colombo, Jaffna, Kayts, Batticaloa).  “We travelled to London, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur [and] spoke to people in Paris, Wellington, Toronto, New York….Together it has taken our two companies six years to bring everything into alignment”, wrote director Eamon Flack.

I understand the need for migrants to find the truth about their origins.  Only after my arrival here in 1955 and my father’s death in 1989, did my mother tell me important truths about my birth and why she had migrated from England and had never gone back, even for a visit.  In the meantime I became thoroughly Australian with, even after visits there, no desire to live in England again.

So I recognised why the audience gave a standing ovation to Counting & Cracking, as we came to understand how very-much-Australian Sid (that is Siddhartha) was born in Australia because his mother Radha had to escape from Sri Lanka even while pregnant, because she (Sinhalese) had insisted on marrying Thirru (a Tamil) who she believed was killed, since his sister had joined the Tamil Tigers.  “Counting and Cracking is a work of fiction”, writes Shakthi, “and there is no intention for any of its characters to represent or reference anyone in real life.  Nevertheless, real life has occasionally worked its way into the story, as it almost always does.”

Hazem Shammas as Ismet; Shiv Pakelar as Siddhartha; Rarriwuy Hick as Lily; Nadie Kammallaweera as Older Radha
Photo: Brett Boardman
Behind Sid’s story was the rise of post colonial Sri Lankan nationalism.  English had been made the official language, keeping the dominance of Sinhalese over Tamil at bay.  In the play the motto of Radha’s father, a Government minister in a time of election conflict, said “Two languages, one country; one language, two countries”.  But social status and economic benefit flowed to Sinhalese/English speakers; poverty and low status was the lot of Tamil speakers.  As Tamils were attacked – shopkeepers in Colombo to the Tigers in the north of the island – and Sinhala was made the only official language, Radha’s father was arrested and kept in home detention – for his own safety, despite his high status – and the time came for Radha to be given a visa by Australia, through unspoken diplomatic channels.

The story on stage was complicated in Act 2 by flashbacking to Radha’s grandfather’s generation to tell the story of her birth, upbringing and marriage.  While in the present time, Siddhartha and Lily – a young Yolgnu woman from Yirrkala in far-northern Australia – were meeting at university and falling in love.  In addition, Radha, by now 21 years away from Sri Lanka, was found to be attractive by Ismet from Lebanon – and she found herself responding to his rather Australian-style direct sense of humour.  Would she remain faithful to the memory of Thirru?

Shiv Palekar and Rarriwuy Hick
as Siddhartha and Lily
Photo: Brett Boardman

Nadie Kammallaweera as Older Radha
Photo: Brett Boardman

Antonythasan Jesuthasan as Older Thirru
Photo: Brett Boardman

But am I cynical to point out that, of course, Thirru is found to have been hidden in jail all this time.  Radha had been expected by her family to agree to an arranged marriage to Sinhalese Hasanga, whose continuing search for Thirru is finally rewarded when Thirru is released – but as a trap to catch anti-government sympathisers against the 20-year war against the Tamil Tigers.  Hasanga has become a journalist, and is at risk because he reports both sides of the conflict, but has knowledge to keep threats at bay.  He now gets Thirru on a boat to India, after phoning Radha and putting Thirru on to allay her disbelief.

Long before this point – in fact during the first interval after the first hour – I had realised this fiction is an adaptation of the Ancient Greek myth of Penelope patiently waiting, putting off suitors, for the 10 years it took Odysseus (presumed to be dead) to get home from the sacking of Troy.  Their son, Telemachus, parallels Siddhartha.

Did I need all the backflashing in the second hour?  Did I expect Thirru to be found, and at the end of the last 40 minutes past the second interval, to be released from Villawood Detention Centre, for a family hug – Radha, Thirru and Siddhartha – while Lily gives them a little private space before she and Sid marry?

I thought – at 4.30 pm after a 1 pm start – that the ending was nice, and I hadn’t really needed much of Hour Two.  But maybe, since most of the audience partook of the provided curry lunch, they had a greater sense of satisfaction – while I, of a more lean and hungry disposition would have liked a tighter and therefore perhaps a more strongly flavoured drama.

I did find out what the title meant, though, from Act 2.  It was about democracy, said Radha’s father: it means counting heads, but only up to a point; after which cracking heads becomes inevitable, if not strictly necessary.  Radha, with her educated non-violence belief, was after all much better off in Australia.

Curry lunch ay Sydney Town Hall
Photo: Frank McKone