Counting and Cracking – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: S.Shakthidharan

Director: Eamon Flack

Sid is an Australian student. His mother is Sri Lankan, but Sid knows little of his Sri Lankan heritage: his mother Radha came to Australia alone and pregnant with Sid and he has never visited Sri Lanka nor does he speak Tamil, the language of his ancestors. When in 2004 Radha asks him to help in the funeral rites for her mother, a process heavy with symbolism, Sid – real name, Siddhartha – is led through the ritual, with little understanding. In Counting and Cracking, we see key points in the history of Sri Lanka largely through the lens of Radha’s family over her lifetime as well as Siddhartha’s growing understanding, aided by his growing relationship with Lily, a law student with Yolngu roots hailing from the north of Australia, who shares her understanding of her own heritage with him.

In post-Colonial Sri Lanka, the official language continues to be English, despite being spoken by only a minority of the population. This leads to a perceived imbalance: the majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, feels excluded while the much smaller Tamil group wields much power. Ultimately, there’s a change of government and the change of national language to Sinhala: now the Tamil minority feels threatened and decades of civil war and destruction ensue, neighbour turned against neighbour and families split. We meet Radha’s family in 1956 – just before the Sinhala First policy is enacted. Her grandfather, Apah, is a leading Tamil politician with a vision of a country living in harmony, but he can see the problems stacking up. Later, when Radha is 21 and a highly successful maths graduate, she is pressed into a marriage that will satisfy the families, but she rebels and marries for love. Black July in 1983 sees a pregnant Radha flee anti-Tamil riots, her husband lost.

Writer S. Shakthidharan has meticulously researched Sri Lankan history – his family history – to produce Cracking and Counting, with characters emerging from his family’s experiences: Apah was inspired by his own great-grandfather, for example. This is a bold piece, epic in scope as the story of Radha and her family is told against the sweeping backdrop of change in Sri Lanka. The action moves smoothly between times and locations with Dale Ferguson’s largely empty set, assisting the pace. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a long piece requiring some stamina to see through to its conclusion. The whole has a musicality – at times Tamil and Sinhala are used, translated by other cast members – and there is an ever-present soundscape from onstage musicians.

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash brings fire to the young Radha as she seeks to follow her heart; Nadie Kammallaweera brings us the older, slightly more reflective Radha, as well as the complex emotions she feels as the 2004 story progresses. Prakash Belawadi brings a sense of wisdom to his depiction of Apah. His story and despair as all seems to descend to chaos around him, his philosophical stance apparently no longer fit for purpose, is powerfully shown. The two love stories, between Radha and Thirru (Kaivalya Suvarna) in the past and Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar) and Lily (Abbie Lee Lewis) in the play’s 2004 present are gently moving, depicted without saccharin.

Overall, Counting and Cracking successfully gives insight into a big story through the lives of one family, their triumphs, fears and problems made clear and presented without sentimentality. It’s not always a comfortable watch, but a rewarding one nonetheless.

Runs Until 27 August 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Epic in scope

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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