Counting and Cracking: A modern epic

Ridley Centre will transform into a Sri Lankan community hall for the Adelaide Festival season of Belvoir St Theatre’s epic Counting and Cracking.

Speaking to The Adelaide Review after Counting and Cracking’s premiere season in Sydney, director Eamon Flack is overwhelmed by the response to the three-and-a-half-hour Sri Lankan/Australian epic written by S. Shakthidharan (Shakthi) that features renowned actors from across the globe.

“It told a story for the first time,” Flack says. “And it meant so much, not just for the Sri Lankan community, but I think to the city’s idea of itself and to a lot of people who had grandparents or parents move to Australia or they themselves moved to Australia.”

A collaboration between Belvoir St Theatre and Shakthi’s Co-Curious Theatre, Counting and Cracking is an ambitious family drama that spans four generations from 1957 Colombo to Sydney’s western suburbs in 2004 and is described as an “epic story of love and political strife, of home and exile, of parents and children”. Featuring 19 actors from across the globe – including Indian actor Prakash Belawadi and star of Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan Antonythasan Jesuthasan – Flack, who is Belvoir’s artistic director, says the production team asked so much from so many to bring Counting and Cracking to life.

“It has taken so many different people from so many different worlds to commit to making this show; people who had given money, people who had changed their daughters’ wedding dates and left India to come out to do it,” he says. “We couldn’t get it wrong.

“It was a tightrope walk – 19 performers from all over the world and many different languages. Bringing everyone to the same page was a kind of great task, it was like building a whole little community really, bringing everyone together.”

The cast of Counting and Cracking (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)
A scene from Counting and Cracking‘s Sydney season (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)

Reviews from Sydney were largely ecstatic. Time Out called it a contender for best play of the year in its five-star review while ArtsHub, in another five-star review, wrote Counting and Cracking is “culturally, dramatically and comically rich”. Counting and Cracking begins in Sydney where a Sri Lankan migrant, Radha, and her son, Siddhartha, release Radha’s mother’s ashes into Sydney’s Georges River. Then a phone call from Sri Lanka brings the past rushing back and the story travels back generations to show a country that will eventually descend into civil war.

Flack, who has directed Angels in America, Ghosts and The Rover for Belvoir, first encountered the script five or six years ago and began working with Shakthi soon after he came across it. Travelling to Sri Lanka, India and the UK to bring it to life, Flack calls his working partnership with Shakthi “one of the most rewarding collaborations” of his career.

“What Shakthi was offering when he decided to write this script was something that I felt we had such a need for in this country but it was also so theatrically big and ambitious that it was always exciting. Every step of the way felt impossible therefore we had to find a way to make it possible.

The cast of Counting and Cracking (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)
Counting and Cracking (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)

“The sheer scale of life it portrayed really captured my imagination but I realised early on that this was an Australian story that didn’t look like what we thought an Australian story looked like, but it was. I loved that about it – to really break that idea open. A vast percentage of people who live in this country were born somewhere else in the world and this country is perennially a place of new beginnings for people, and that’s what this story is about. I’ve never seen it told in this way before, I’ve never seen Australia talked about in this particular way on our stage.”

For Counting and Cracking, Belvoir will transform Ridley Centre into a Sri Lankan community hall complete with a purpose-built stage, cushions and a traditional Sri Lankan live band. Audience members will be offered a choice of two curries on the way in.

“We wanted to make something that was for everybody; that was a big broad national story; that was not just about the Sri Lankan experience, not just about the migrant experience, it was about this country and it would be a generous piece of theatre that could play to everybody; that it was not going to be something that was insisting on its own artistic specialness,” Flack says. “We didn’t want to shut anyone out … We wanted to be as open and generous as possible.”

Counting and Cracking
Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground
Saturday, March 2 to Saturday, March 9
adelaidefestival.com.au

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