PLAYWRIGHT S Shakthidharan (Shakthi) is bringing his debut play, centred around the story of Sri Lankan migrants to Australia, to the UK as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival.
Counting and Cracking follows the lives of Radha and her son Siddhartha as they release the ashes of her mother into a Sydney river. His grandmother was their last connection to Sri Lanka and its past. But a phone call from Colombo brings it back to life, shaking up the family and forcing Radha to confront the secrets and trauma that made them flee Sri Lanka.
Featuring a total of 19 performers (16 cast members and three live musicians) from six countries, it follows Radha’s Sri Lankan-Australian family across four generations, from 1956 to 2004. The story of the family’s break-up and reunion also tells the tales of post-independence Sri Lanka and Australia as a migrant nation.
Counting and Cracking, the largest performance ever from Australian theatre company Belvoir Productions, and with a running time of three-and-a-half-hours, has already won 14 major awards. Most notably it scooped the Helpmann Awards (the Australian Olivier Awards) for Best Production and Best Direction.
For Shakthi, working on such a huge project, “was really terrifying. But it was also just so thrilling.”
The sheer enormity of the project provides a chance to “celebrate our community, both as a way for us to internally heal, and for all of us to come together – Tamil, Sinhalese, Burghers and Muslims,” he explained.
He said the play was important in terms of telling the Sri Lankan migrant experience. “For the Sri Lankan community, the story is a way for us to have a safe space to meet some of the more difficult aspects of our past, but also heal from that. And celebrate who we are.”
Shakthi, 40, has lived in Sydney since he and his family fled Sri Lanka after the 1983 riots broke out. Speaking to Eastern Eye, he cited growing up as a Sri Lankan-Australian as the inspiration for the play. “Growing up, my mother never told me about why we left Sri Lanka and came to Australia. When I hit my late 20s, I really needed to know more about my heritage and my past, and she was not forthcoming,” he revealed.
Against his mother’s wishes, he visited Sri Lanka and reconnected with his remaining family there. Through talking to them, he learned that his greatgrandfather was a farmer turned politician, and one of few Tamils in the first post-independence government. “…The more I learned about his story, the more I realised that kind of my family’s story was wrapped up in my country’s story. And there was a play right there that hadn’t been told about Sri Lanka, which is not a story of an island divided,” he explained.
Instead of the expected scene of Tamils pitted against the local Singhalese, he found a much more interwoven nation despite “the politics of division laying the seeds for war”.
Following independence, the decision to make Sinhala Sri Lanka’s official language resulted in anti-Tamil violence. Starting in 1956, a series of anti-Tamil pogroms began and in July 1983, civil war broke out and lasted over a quarter of a century until May 2009.
This multi-generational trauma inspired Shakthi’s decision to set the play over four generations. “The play ends with a very simple act for a family – the possibility of reuniting after many decades being separated, but in this simple act of reunification, to understand what it means you have to travel back four generations.”
Growing up in the Homebush suburb of Sydney, where many Sri Lankan-Tamils settled, Shakthi’s cultural upbringing was unusual, on the one hand steeped in his heritage through his mother’s work as a Bharatanatyam dancer, but on the other, lacking through her reluctance to talk about why they had to leave Sri Lanka.
He also absorbed a lot of Australian culture growing up. “I was following Australian cricket and listening to rock bands and grunge, and I wasn’t at all part of that community,” which he said disconnected him from his heritage. However, the play provided him with a path back to “understanding who and what the Sri Lankan story was”.
The play is a work of fiction, but according to Shakthi, “everything in it is based on something that really happened”. While researching the play, he talked to Sri Lankan ex-leaders and refugees, many of whom wanted their stories and names included in the production. It was also very personal to Shakthi as some of it was based on his family. “…It’s a love story and a family story of between generations,” he said.
His mother initially warned him against making Counting and Cracking, but showing her the first draft, “gave her space and time to meet a lot of the trauma she had buried when she left Sri Lanka”, and led to her opening up about her experiences, he said.
Shakthi, who also spoke to dozens of Sri Lankans living all over the world, said he hopes the play provides a “sacred space where many truths can gather at once”, something he argues is urgently needed in the modern day.
At a time when many political leaders use division for political gain, “we have to, as a people, find a way to still hold on to who we are and our most dearly held truths, but acknowledge that it’s more important to gather with people who are different to us, and see our commonalities,” he said.
The surprising 4,000-year-old genetic connection between Sri Lankan Tamils and indigenous Australians was one reason why Shakthi felt it was important to set the play in Australia.
“I like that very solidarity between Aboriginal and Asian communities that is ancient and unending and is pre-colonial and postcolonial,” he said.
Shakthi believes Siddhartha, as a “cricket-loving, fairly assimilated boy into Western culture, who’s suddenly plunged into his family secrets and forced to contend with who and what he is”, will resonate with south Asians globally. He described the play’s understanding of what it means to leave your homeland as a “universal story”.
Shakthi admitted the response to Counting and Cracking has been “incredible”, with people regularly approaching him post-performance to say “thank you for showing us a pathway back to unity”.
With their country today being in turmoil, the play also gave Sri Lankans an opportunity to “forge a shared future together”, he said. As it is written by a Sri Lankan migrant, it also provides them with an agency to tell their story. “We don’t have to play second fiddle with what we perceive the migrant story is in these western democracies,” he said.
Shakthi added that he hoped the honest portrayal of migrants resonated most with south Asians. “It’s such a celebration of this – the kind of warts and all of who we are,” he said. Opening in Tamil, the play features six languages, representing the south Asian story’s place in the global conversation, “like everyone is welcome to the story, but they get to see it through the prism of a south Asian story”.
Shakthi said he was keen to one day take the play to more countries, especially those with big Sri Lankan-Tamil populations, such as the US and Canada. “I would love for this play to travel all around the world, to where our children from the diasporas are. I’d love for it to go back to Sri Lanka one day,” he said.
His childhood inspirations were books, from JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series to the Indian epic, the Ramayana. He also credited directors including Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as inspirations for telling the south Asian story.
Migration is a controversial topic in the UK and Australia, with both nations being accused of inhumane immigration policies. “It’s a genuine human loss to not give migrants and refugees the feeling that they belong here,” argued Shakthi.
He also criticised the use of migrant communities, in particular, refugees as “a political football,” pointing out that the UK and Australia became superpowers through migrant labour.
Counting and Cracking opens at the Lyceum Theatre for the Edinburgh Festival in August (8-14) before moving to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre later in the month (August 19-27).