This March, after years of development, new Australian play Counting and Cracking will make its Adelaide debut as part of Adelaide Festival.
Writer S. Shakthidharan (known as Shakthi) spent more than five years crafting the story of Sri Lankan migrant Radha and her son Siddartha. But, he says the work is also the product of generations of silence.
“This particular story is untold in an Australian and a Sri Lankan context,” he says. “In Sri Lanka, the effects of the civil war… created a cautiousness about our history and the predisposition is silence. It is easier not to talk about things.
“In an Australian context, the push is to ask migrants to fit in, which means we have to drop bits of ourselves off.”
In following a narrative of civil war, dislocation, and identity that has been lost and sometimes buried, the work casts a wide net – canvassing recent social and political histories of Sri Lanka and Australia, while examining the slippery and haunting nature of the past.
The production behind the piece is commensurately large. A collaboration between Shakthi’s company, Co-Curious, and Belvoir, it is performed by an ensemble cast of 16 actors who inhabit about 50 different roles. Set across two countries and four generations, Counting and Cracking is a rare hybrid – the result of both heavy financial investment and genuine community connection.
The base of the story comes from Shakthi’s research period, during which he spent more than four years interviewing relatives and community members in Australia and Sri Lanka.
“I have developed my career as a community artist – what that means for me is a process of working with community and you don’t know what you’re making when you start,” says Shakthi. “It’s about talking to that community and seeing what they need.”
What was needed, Shakthi came to realise, was a story of nuance and breadth – one that allowed the full complexity of two countries’ histories and the experience of migration to be explored.
Bringing Belvoir – one of Sydney’s premiere theatre companies – on board allowed for the full realisation of Shakthi’s expansive vision. Counting and Cracking runs for more than three hours (including intervals) with a live band on stage alongside the large troupe of actors who, over a four-year casting process, were chosen not just for their acting ability but also for their capacity to work with the multi-lingual script.
After the debut season in Sydney earlier this year attracted glowing critical acclaim, it seems the team’s hard work has paid off. Shakthi has received a particularly poignant nod of approval from his mother, who – throughout his childhood – refused to speak of her home country.
“It completely changed my relationship with her,” he says. “It’s the power of storytelling.”
As a tale offering unprecedented insight into a little-explored facet of the modern Australian identity, this is a story that will resonate far beyond Shakthi’s family – reaching audiences across the country.
“The idea of Counting and Cracking is that, in Australia, to understand any family getting an ice cream down at the shop, you need to understand the history of other lands,” says Shakthi.
“It is like life itself – it is a bunch of humans getting together deciding if we’re better off being with each other and living together or living in our own universe.”
Counting and Cracking will be performed at the Ridley Centre in the Adelaide Showgrounds, March 2-9, as part of the Adelaide Festival.