In stone, brick, iron and plaster, Sydney Town Hall is an expression of a British Empire approaching its zenith.
In Counting and Cracking, the first major production outside of its own theatre Belvoir has made in some years, this imperial space is dramatically reconfigured to tell a story rooted in the post colonial experience.
Broad in its scope and large in scale, S. Shakthidharan’s long-gestating play moves its audience between suburban Australia, circa 2004, and tumultuous periods in the post-colonial history of Sri Lanka, with an emphasis on the schism in 1956 that would ultimately lead to a bloody quarter-century civil war between the island’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations.
For Australian-born Siddhartha (played by Shiv Palekar), that history is a world away. Having grown up in Pendle Hill with his widowed mother Radha (Nadie Kammallaweera), a refugee who arrived in Australia in the wake of the anti-Tamil riots that swept Colombo, he’s more concerned with his Media Studies course and more pressingly with Lily (Rarriwuy Hick), the Aboriginal student lawyer he’s fallen in love with.
But the past, as always, has a habit of catching up. Shakthidharan’s multi-lingual script slips back in time a couple of generations to introduce us to Siddhartha’s grandfather Apah (Prakash Belawadi, one of several international actors in this 19-strong ensemble), a respected mathematician-turned-politician of Tamil stock for whom the perfection of the equation – both sides different but equal – serves as his model for the post-colonial Sri Lanka.
The government in which he serves as trade minister has other ideas. In 1956, the Sinhala Only Act was passed, mandating that Sinhalese – and only Sinhalese – replace English as the official language of Sri Lanka. Fertilised by ethno-nationalism, the seeds of an already simmering discontent quickly germinate.
Shakthidharan lays out the story in three acts separated by intermissions. The first is largely light in tone and focused on Siddhartha and his mother Radha. Act II is darker and somewhat more demanding in that it requires concentrated listening to keep abreast of unfolding situations.
Act III, which describes the Colombo riots (in effect, that city’s kristallnacht) in a series of phone calls from panicked Tamil shop owners, is dense with incident, political intrigue and drama. That continues in Act III, with the addition of a reunion plot that throws a spotlight on Australia’s troubled record of refugee resettlement. The play’s humour, drama and eye-opening historical perspectives are finely balanced across three hours of stage time.
Played on a deep thrust stage – Dale Ferguson’s design sits within the Town Hall and all but obscures its architecture – director Eamon Flack’s production moves fluidly from moment to moment and his marshalling of this uncommonly numerous cast is excellent. The big picture and the small detail are very capably handled and playful touches abound.
Live music by Kiran Mudigonda and Janakan Raj is exquisite, creating all manner of moods and building tension in the riot sequence. They even provide the Skype dial tone.
Lighting (Damien Cooper) and sound design (Stefan Gregory, assisted by Jessica Dunn) do a great deal to make this high-ceilinged space workable. The actors are wireless miked and while the natural reverberation of the room is a little distracting at first, one quickly adjusts.
Palekar, Hick and Kammallaweera are very fine in what amount to the lead roles. Belawadi and the mellifluous Monroe Reimers excel as old friends wrenched apart by politics. Hazem Shammas is delightful as Ismet, the garrulous air-conditioning installer who sets his cap at Radha. Paris-based actor Antonyhasan Jesuthasan is magnetic as Radha’s husband Thirru, a man brought back from the dead.
There’s notable work too from Nicholas Brown, Gandhi MacIntyre, Ahilan Karunaharan (playing a shady arms dealer), Jay Emmanuel (the young Thirru), Monica Kumar, Nipuni Sharada, Rajan Velu, Sukania Venugopal and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash.
Counting and Cracking has been a long time coming and Belvoir has probably hocked itself to the hilt to get this ambitious production up. I think it’s one of the most impressive works the company has made in some time and it is, for me, one of the absolute highlights of this year’s Sydney Festival.
Counting and Cracking will be touring to the Adelaide Festival for a limited season from March 2-9 in the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds.