Counting and Cracking
"The tears were at once grateful and mournful.
I am sad, and angry, that we haven’t seen a story like this before onstage, when so many of us on this stolen land feel stories like these running through our bones."
S. Shakthidharan (Co-Curious) & Eamon Flack (Belvoir)
The year’s just begun and already, Sydney’s been graced with some of the best theatre we’ve seen in a while. Already rumoured as the Best Production of 2019, S. Shakthidharan’s doubly-sold-out epic Counting and Cracking took up the Sydney Town Hall as part of Sydney Festival. It is the latest in a growing list of productions that – to me – finally represent the city that I’ve grown up in, and the experiences that myself and so many of my friends have in common. Theatre, an artform that has traditionally been dominated by old, White playwrights and audiences is slowly shifting into a space that is for us, and transformatively so.
Counting and Cracking orbits around Radha (played by Nadie Kammallaweera in present 2004, and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in flashbacks), a Tamil woman who migrated to Sydney from Sri Lanka in the 1970s, when separatism was rearing its head more aggressively than it ever had. We follow her as she navigates her complex relationship with her 21 year old son Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar), and come to understand who she is in the present through seeing some formative experiences from her past.
The family dynamic, particularly between mother and son, rippled close to home – outwardly exploring the often-unspoken guilt us migrant children feel and try to push away; the slow acquirement of understand in young adulthood of what our parents sacrificed for us; the self-loathing and denial of these facts; the retrospective shame reflecting on how we acted when we are younger, and the even more gradual acceptance and appreciation as we come to terms with it. This was the journey Siddharta was on. Initially, we see him as he likes to be known – a true blue Aussie, a bright young man who has successfully assimilated into the culture of the city he calls home. And then we see him shift: he falls in love with the wonderful Lily (Rarriwuy Hick), struggles immensely with culture and family, and comes out the other side wanting to know more, connect more. We see generations of this family, helmed by strong men and stronger women, and conflict around them in both Sri Lanka and Australia.
The power of seeing an entire cast of colour –the majority of whom were South Asian, with a healthy mixture of international and local actors – on a Sydney stage cannot be understated. Some of the most striking imagery in the production depicted refugees and Brown bodies in a way we so rarely witness across Australian mainstream media. Not once is the audience permitted to forget the humanity of those seeking refuge in this story or on these shores today. These arresting narratives of empathy and compassion weaved throughout this work have been important in this country for a very long time, and hold so much strength as we continue to battle the humanitarian crisis directly resting on our Parliament’s shoulders.
From the first scene transition, where we see the 16-strong this cast working together in a play full of the most impressive and holistic use of bodies an entire cast at all times that I’ve the show and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one. The first act was arresting – not only because we were introduced to complex characters and story, but were also initiated into the revolutionary form and scale of this work. Masterful onstage translation and signifiers of time/location changes kept this epic easy to follow. Incredible, resourceful prop usage, ingenious invocation of memory and flashbacks to Radha and Sid’s story linger long after you’ve left the imposing walls of the Town Hall, which for those three hours, told a different history.
In retrospect, the tears were at once grateful and mournful. I am sad, and angry, that we haven’t seen a story like this before onstage, when so many of us on this stolen land feel stories like these running through our bones. I am furious at the rarity of this opportunity for so many of the immensely talented, intergenerational actors telling this story. But above all, I am so unspeakably glad that young brown kids can go see this play with their parents, and that they will understand more and more about the play for years to come. I am excited for the actors, writers and directors of colour coming up who now have points of reference – in Counting in Cracking, in Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female, in Black Birds’ Brown Skin Girl – to tell their own stories, unique, universal and every balance in between.