Counting and Cracking: Sri Lankan playwright Shakthi on a very personal EIF debut

For his explosive new work Counting and Cracking, part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Sri Lankan playwright Shakthi found inspiration in his family’s background after many years of focusing on assimilating in his new Australian home, writes Joyce McMillan
Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.
Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.

The playwright S Shakthidharan – universally known as Shakthi – was only three years old when his family fled civil war in Sri Lanka to make a new home in Sydney; and for many years, after their arrival in the early 1980s, they lived what Shakhthi calls a “life of assimilation”, always striving to become more Australian than the Australians. Shakthi’s parents were Tamil Sri Lankans, driven out of their country by the increasingly violent and exclusive Sinhalese nationalism of successive Sri Lankan governments, and their militant supporters.

As a boy growing up in Homebush, though – in western Sydney’s “little Sri Lanka” – Shakthi learned almost nothing about this family history. “Our parents didn’t tell us much about it,” says Shakthi. “They wanted to put the past behind them; and of course, like all good parents of immigrant families, they wanted us to become doctors and lawyers and engineers, and to have solid, secure Australian careers.”

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From an early age, though, it was obvious to Shakthi that he wanted to be some kind of artist. A few years after their arrival in Australia, his parents divorced; and his mother, with a family to support, had no option but to return to her original profession as a highly-trained dancer in the Tamil Lingalayam tradition, founding her own dance company in Sydney.

Shakthi therefore grew up around the dance company, and soon fell in love with the business of performance. “I began to love that feeling in the moment before the lights go down,” he said, “that feeling that in theatre, anything can happen – maybe even something brilliant and life-changing.” After school, he studied journalism at university; but soon after he graduated, he went to work for a community arts company in Sydney, and has been a theatre-maker ever since, revelling in big, dramatic stories that have ranged from Hindu epics to Lord Of The Rings, and the kind of blockbuster family dramas seen on television.

By the time he reached his late 20s, though, Shakthi increasingly felt that he could not go on ignoring his own story, and that of his family. “So much of the journey of assimilation into a new culture is a bit of a performance,” says Shakthi. “It’s a matter of pretending to do what everyone else does, until it becomes second nature. But that process leaves you with no basis or foundation, and sooner or later you have to confront the relationship between what you are now, and where you came from; so I began, very gradually, to research the history of my family, and to learn more about the family’s long history of involvement in Sri Lankan politics.

“My mother thought the whole project was a really stupid idea, and that I should leave it alone. But I visited Sri Lanka, and met family there, and began two read the letters of my great-grandfather, the Sri Lankan Tamil politician C Suntharalingam. He was a lawyer who campaigned for democracy and human rights, and became a government minister. But he became disillusioned with Sri Lankan democracy as it increasingly began to exclude Tamils; and the more I read, the more I realised that I wanted to create an epic piece of theatre that would capture the whole of this huge narrative, and all the human stories that are part of it.”

The result – after more than ten years of research and writing – was Shakthi’s epic three-hour play Counting And Cracking, produced by Belvoir Theatre, co-written and co-directed by Belvoir’s Eamon Flack, premiered at Sydney Town Hall in 2019, and now set to appear for the first time outside Australia at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, as part of the major UK/Australia 2022 event co-sponsored by the British Council and the Australian Government which is also supporting several other music and dance performances at this year’s Festival, including the spectacular opening event, Macro.

Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman PhotographyCounting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman Photography
Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman Photography

Counting And Cracking begins on the banks of a river in suburban Sydney, where Radha and her son are releasing the ashes of her mother, who represented their final connection to the family’s Sri Lankan past. An unexpected call from Colombo, though, reminds them that history is not so easily buried; and the action explodes into a vivid, powerful, and often visually stunning family story, set in four time-periods between 1956 and the early 2000s. The title of the play comes from one of Shakthi’s great-grandfather’s letters, in which he observed that democracy is a matter of “counting heads within certain limits, and cracking heads beyond those limits”; and it reflects the huge themes to do with democracy and belonging, exile and loss, migration, assimilation, and the struggle for true belonging in a new country, that Shakthi’s drama brings to life.

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“Working on this play has been a truly remarkable experience,” says Shakthi, “and the response to it has been astonishing. The cast itself is amazing; 16 actors and three musicians, from six different countries, each one of them bringing their own family stories and their own insights to this Australian story.

“Counting And Cracking is a work of fiction, of course; but every single word in it is true, based on a genuine real-life experience, and I guess that’s why people respond to it so strongly. My mother, who had completely buried the whole experience that shapes the play, has I think been transformed and to some extent healed by it, and now enjoys taking part in public discussions and conversations about it; and I think it has that same effect on other people too – including Australians whose own story of migration and resettlement is quite different, whether their background is Irish or English or Jewish, or something else again.

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“So it’s been thrilling to see this play take its place as part of the wider Australian story, and begin to contribute to the bigger picture of our time. In the end, there are three things I have learned from making this play. The first is that everyone has family, and can identify with a strong family story. The second is that democracy always needs to be nurtured, maintained and embraced, and can never ever be taken for granted; and the third is that healing is possible, both for individuals and societies – not least through art, and truthful storytelling. And if my play can bring that story to Edinburgh, and win the same response from international audiences there, then that will be another huge step on the journey I began more than a decade ago; when I decided that this story just couldn’t remain untold any longer.”

Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett BoardmanCounting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman
Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman

Counting And Cracking is at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 8-14 August, with a preview on 7 August,

Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.
Counting and Cracking PIC: Brett Boardman.