The spontaneous standing ovation from the capacity opening night audience, the joy and misty eyes said it all; Adelaide Festival audiences had just witnessed an important new work, refreshing in its honesty and scope of ideas. Counting and Cracking is epic in proportion; it is three and a half hours long and it is refreshing to see a new generation of epic Australian plays, and I include here The Secret River and Cloudstreet, that are not afraid to tackle big universal issues and ideas.
It gives me so much pleasure to see contemporary Australian theatre taking up the mantle against populist notions that seek to simplify and objectify victims caught up in a moment that is so much bigger than the seekers of simple solutions could possibly imagine. Counting and Cracking looks intelligently at asylum seekers, refugees and life in the Sri Lankan migrant diaspora in Australia.
Presented by Belvoir and Co-Curious we see the Ridley Centre of the Adelaide Showgrounds transformed into a Sri Lankan hall with a large extended thrust stage that provides the audience with an intimacy and immediacy so necessary to fully understand the tribulations and perturbations that befall the cast. And it is this intimacy and a light directorial touch that allows the events and ideas to effortlessly span five decades and three acts. Writer, S. Shakhtidharan recounts the time of troubles in Sri Lanka; the conflict between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils and the resultant civil war and Black July Riots, yet does so with light intelligent dialogue that is not cluttered with unnecessary complexities. Every civil war is complex yet audience members with only the scantest understanding of the history of the Sri Lankan troubles will find this easy to follow.
The dialogue moves seamlessly between Singhalese and English with actors perched on the side providing the necessary translations. Similarly the action moves freely between Sydney and Sri Lanka and the power of the transformative effect of theatre is not only evident on stage but in the hearts and minds of the audience as the audience is immersed in a real situation that leads to asylum being sought in Australia.
There are splendidly celebratory as well as disturbingly chaotic moments as the large cast of sixteen actors engage in rituals and the tribulations associated with the frenzied escape to Australia on an asylum boat. Eamon Flack is equally at ease directing the timing and spatial considerations necessary with a large cast as he is with the more intimately tender moments. Humour is ever present and the Coogee Beach scene is delightfully clever.
Music is constantly present in Counting and Cracking with a South Asian influenced score played so evocatively by Shenzo Gregorio, Arjunan Puveendran and Vinad Prasanna. The moments of percussion and flute add to the immersive ambience that includes the incense and colourful traditional costumes.
Counting and Cracking is epic in the scope of the ideas that are presented and while the godfather of Epic Theatre, Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”, you sense that even though you have not been preached at, you do walk away with a much more sensitive understanding of the plight of Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
This is a very important play; it is highly entertaining and intellectually very satisfying. I just wish that populists would take the time to see it. This is theatre that has the power to change lives. It is a rare privilege, and one that I highly recommend.
Adelaide Festival Review By Bob Becker