There is a groundswell of feeling in Australia that the inhumane policies implemented by the hard right in the government since the Tampa incident of 2001 towards refugees has gone too far. Even the Labor Party, by no means exempt from blame in these policies, is showing signs of softening. And this groundswell is surfacing with force at the Adelaide Festival. A photographic exhibition in the foyer of the Festival Centre by various artists about the exodus to Europe from Syria and other places in the Middle East; a new exhibition by Ben Quilty, who was invited by World Vision to Syria after spending time in Afghanistan; the play Manus, derived verbatim from Iranians brutally detained on Manus Island including Behrouz Boochani; all these direct our attention to the terrible plight of refugees across Eurasia. And among these is Shaktidharan’s amazing theatre piece, Counting and Cracking.
This work, already being touted as the play of the year after its premiere in Sydney in January, has received many reviews from those better qualified than I. I will confine myself in this review largely to areas in which I have a little knowledge: music, refugees, and the pervasive influence of the Indian epic, Mahabharata (the subject of three operas I am writing) and the Baghavad Gita which it contains.
“Sixteen actors play four generations of a family, from Colombo to Pendle Hill, in a story about Australia as a land of refuge, about Sri Lanka’s effort to remain united, about reconciliation between families, across countries, across generations.” Some reviewers found the criss-crossing of geography and time-lines hard to follow. I did not. Others complained that while the first and third act flowed with considerable energy, the second was relatively static. I registered the second act as the crucial scene to which all the events of the first and third acts relate, and my attention didn’t flag for a moment. It contains the long scene in which the circumstances surrounding Radha’s marriage to Thirru (Jay Emmanuel) are interrupted by the crisis which engulfs Sri Lanka, and gives rise to the decades of war between the Tamil Tigers and the government; when the leading Tamil politician parts company with the leading Sinhalese politician, leading to the split between these two peoples.
In the course of the presentation the principal actors also act as stage crew, bringing in props and holding them on stage, and translating the parts of the text which are in Tamil, Sinhala, Sanscrit and Arabic. While they are taking on these roles they nonetheless interact with the actors as if they were part of the play. Because they are. Because no-one can remain unaffected by the events being acted out on the apron stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience. This, combined with the fact that the play, about a Sri Lankan family, was played by Sri Lankans, and the character of the Yolgnu woman was played by a Yolgnu (Rarriwuy Hick), blurred the line between life and art in a way that gave unusual immediacy to the performance. All the actors performed with great intensity, arising at least partly from the fact that the actors identified so personally with the situations described.
The play opens with a short piece of music played by a Carnatic ensemble of flute, drums and other percussion, which had been put together for the Adelaide performances by Alan John. They don’t play much during the three hours of action, but when they do, the tears flow. They gave the opening scene, when Radha (Kalieswari Srinvasan) bullyingly instructs her son Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar) to toss his grandmother’s ashes into the Georges River in ritual burial, a deeply moving frame. And, a bit like the actors when they were translating, they took part in the action directly, as for example when they play the sounds of a Skype call connection. In point of fact, only one of the musicians, Arjunan Puveendran, was a Carnatic player; the flautist, Vinod Prasanna, is a North Indian musician, and the third, Shenzo Gregorio is just one of those incredibly versatile musicians who can turn his hand to anything. Thanks largely to Alan John’s skilful preparation, they nonetheless sounded not only convincing but also emotionally alive.
The Mahabharata is about war between two branches of a family, paralleling the war between the two peoples who inhabit Sri Lanka, the Tamils, who are Hindu, and the Sinhalese, who are Buddhist. The Hindu religion has one of its most sacred texts embedded in Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and this is quoted in sophistry by one of the Hindu characters: Krishna has already determined the fate of everyone, and so there is no point in trying to do good in the world. It is then quoted by Thirru, a Tamil, at the height of desperation, as saying that generosity which arises from no thought of personal gain is counted among the highest virtues.
Counting and Cracking is a profoundly affecting play, in which the lives of many people are actually or nearly destroyed by political decisions made both in Sri Lanka and in Australia. It is one of the most powerful testaments I have ever seen to the idea that theatre can persuade on a political level by means of intensely emotional interactions. Because of direct enactment by real people, unlike film, and in this case by real people who were involved to a great extent with the events portrayed, theatre is perhaps the most effective vehicle for conveying messages about social and political dysfunction, with a chance of changing things.
“Ours is a migrant nation on Aboriginal land. At its best it is a land of refuge and new beginnings”, writes the director, Eamon Flack. We must not tolerate politicians who torture and kill people for political gain. In the end, what could possibly be more evil than that? We must allow refugees refuge here, starting with those incarcerated on Manus and on Nauru, but extending without prejudice to all those whose lives are endangered in their country of origin. We owe this to them. And as Australians, we owe it to ourselves.
Belvoir and Co-Curious presents
Counting and Cracking
by S. Shakthidharan
Director Eamon Flack
Venue: Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds | Goodwood Road, Wayville SA
Dates: 2 – 9 March 2019
Tickets: $89 – $45