Photo courtesy of The Wee Review

It debuted to rave reviews in Australia in early 2019 and met with the same response in Edinburgh and Birmingham. Despite recounting very personal and Sri Lankan experiences, S. Shakthidaran’s Counting and Cracking has universal appeal because it is a deeply moving, human story.

Having been brought up in Australia, Shakthi explored the legacy of people who left Sri Lanka to settle overseas and wove it into a complex tale that follows four generations of one family from 1956 to 2004, presenting the civil war, family relationships and migration in a work researched and developed over ten years. The play also examines what it is like to live the life of a migrant in Australia.

Counting and Cracking, which is trilingual with actors translating the Tamil and Sinhalese live, begins in Sydney where Siddhartha admits he knows little of his past. His father died before he was born and his mother escaped to Australia, he has never been to Sri Lanka and has little interest in his roots. But he is soon forced to confront his family’s history and all the baggage it brings along. His mother, Radha, is also a central character in the story.

“In times of great division, the persecution of minoritised cultures is all too common and Counting and Cracking is a reminder of the barbarity that can be swiftly welcomed when we accept divisive politics. It’s an immensely moving production, tackling a complex and brutal subject matter with a sensitivity that shifts it away from a mere history lesson. As we’re immersed in one family’s story of movement between continents, we’re also given the opportunity to think about the impact of generational trauma and the wider meaning of home,” said a reviewer in Edinburgh.

In Australia, a reviewer marvelled at the fact that the mostly white, middle-aged audience at the performance he attended was cheering on a Sri Lankan migrant getting on a boat to come to Australia as one of the “boat people”.

Shakthi answered questions from Groundviews on the play’s wide appeal, his own journey of discovery and the disapora’s response.

Where does the title come from?

Late in the play, in one of its most climactic moments, one of the lead characters says “Democracy is the counting of heads, within certain limits; and the cracking of heads beyond those limits.” It is a direct quote from my great grandfather. In many ways this play is an examination of the limits of democracy – how fragile it is, and what we must do to nurture it. We cannot take it for granted.

The play had glowing reviews in Australia and the UK. Have you been surprised by its success?

I didn’t know what to expect. As far as I know, there aren’t many other plays out there in the world similar to Counting and Cracking. There is no yardstick by which I can guess at how an audience might react. We just took a deep breath and committed to it, not knowing what would eventuate on the other side. What has surprised me is how the work’s success has become a kind of radical act of belonging for the global Sri Lankan community. Through performing this story on Australian mainstream stages, our story became an Australian one. By taking this story to a festival like Edinburgh, our story became part of the global one. The act of telling this story is, underneath it all, an act of saying we matter, we belong.

Why do you think it has universal appeal despite dealing with the Sri Lankan story in large part?

It has universal appeal precisely because it is so specific. Despite being a work of fiction overall, every individual detail in Counting and Cracking is true. The story feels real to audiences. And because it feels real, they invest in the characters wholeheartedly. Ultimately we have all loved, we have all lost, we all have families. The potential to connect to these universal themes through such a specific lens is why, I think, audiences from so many different walks of life have embraced the work.

How difficult was it to coordinate 19 performers from six different countries and to stage a trilingual play?

It took a long time – four years or so – to find the performers. So that part was very difficult. Each role in the play has specific age, language and other cultural requirements. We also had to find people who believed in the purpose of the play: a truth telling, yes, but with the goal of healing and unifying. We use the stage as a sacred space where many truths can gather and exist together. But once we found the right team, it wasn’t so difficult to coordinate. They are a brilliant cast: talented, generous, open, curious. With that group in the rehearsal room, the unachievable slowly becomes possible day by day, minute by minute. It is a privilege to work with them.

Is one of the messages that you can’t escape your past or your heritage?

I think you can escape your past. You can lose your heritage. This play, very gently, suggests that it is never a wise idea to do so. That no matter how painful, it is worth reckoning with your past. It is worth reconnecting with your heritage. The play is a stepping through of that epic, personal journey and it is one the audience and the cast take together, scene by scene.

What has been the response of the Tamil diaspora? Has the play has encouraged some of them to deal with their conflicted past?

Many in the global Sri Lankan diaspora have travelled to see the play and many have come from Sri Lanka itself to see it too. The play works as a communal, safe space for Sri Lankans to meet the buried pain of their past, and to heal. One audience member wrote in a blog post about the show, “I really hope this play travels the world and heals the hidden wounds of many like me.” It has been a privilege to see the show do just that for audiences in both Australia and the UK.

Do you hope the show may result in a more welcoming attitude towards refugees both in Australia and the UK?

I hope it humanises those who choose to leave their homeland and those who feel they have to flee their homeland. This is always a complex decision. It cannot be broken down into soundbites or headlines. This play presents audiences with the complexity of this decision, and asks them to grapple with it, one human to another.

Is Siddhartha journey of discovery of his roots and of himself a similar version to your own journey? How has writing and directing the play changed you as a person and also your family?

I discovered my roots through the process of writing and making this show. Similarly, for my mother, the process of working on this show has led to a healing of her relationship with Sri Lanka. The wonderful thing is that our journeys of learning, healing and understanding ran parallel with the development of the work and changed the story, the script and the final show in all sorts of specific and important ways. Ultimately, the characters of Radha and Siddhartha have different journeys in the play to my mother and I but in this lovely, co-dependent way, our real lives and Counting and Cracking are deeply intertwined.

Any plans to bring it to Sri Lanka and how do you think it will be received here? 

I would love to one day. There is interest. We have no firm plans at the moment. I have a feeling it would be a profound experience.

Is there a film in there?

Yes, I think there is. Again, I hope this is something I can realise for the work one day.

See details of Shakthi’s upcoming production The Jungle and the Sea