Counting and Cracking review – an absorbing Sri Lankan family odyssey

Two young lovers are considering the future after meeting at university in Coogee, New South Wales. One is Siddharatha (Shiv Palekar), a media studies student; the other is Lily (Abbie-Lee Lewis), who is studying law. Neither has roots in the place.

Siddharatha has a hankering to return to his mother’s home in Pendle Hill, a Sydney suburb. It surprises him to say it, but it is the one place to which he feels connected. Lily knows she will inevitably return to the north of Australia and the ancient Aboriginal land of her people. “In Sydney, I’m a guest,” she says without bitterness.

Siddharatha also has half an idea to discover his Sri Lankan origins, a culture he knows little about despite his Tamil heritage and Sinhala name. The conversation is kindly and understanding, not confrontational, but it points to the dilemma driving S Shakthidharan’s three-and-a-half hour family saga.

Place is central to our identity, shaping not just our loyalties, but our very sense of self. Being displaced, voluntarily or otherwise, can be traumatic. We are hard-wired to value home.

At the heart of the play is Siddharatha’s mother, Radha, played by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as her younger self and Nadie Kammallaweera when older. An embodiment of humanitarian values, she is a woman who flees her native Sri Lanka in 1983, at a time of sectarian division and civil unrest, not out of choice but because she sees no hope in the Sinhala and Tamil population uniting as one country. “People must live,” she says, reacting against the in-fighting among her father’s peers in the Colombo government. “Life must hijack politics.”

As the smell of incense wafts across the auditorium from the warm glow of Dale Ferguson’s broad sandy stage, Counting and Cracking spans nations, decades and languages, from Radha’s birth in 1956 to her courtship in 1977 and onwards to the Australia of 2004. Languidly directed by Eamon Flack for Sydney’s Belvoir company, it moves fluidly, sometimes playfully, from era to era, the three musicians playing throughout, as if the characters carry the rhythm of Sri Lanka with them. It makes for an absorbing journey from separation to reconciliation, always alive to the pulse of history.

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