'Counting And Cracking': The South Asian Play That Beat Harry Potter Is Back

Playwright S. Shakthidharan grew up “very cynical about the mainstream Australian arts industry”. But the success of his show 'Counting and Cracking' has shifted his and others' perceptions about the future.

Counting and Cracking directors S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack

Counting and Cracking directors S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack. Image Source: Supplied/Ken Leanfore

It’s been five years since Counting and Cracking played at Sydney Town Hall. As it returns to Sydney later this month, off the back of a Melbourne run that’s currently underway, there are high expectations for the production that has unquestionably changed playwright S. Shakthidharan’s perspective on the arts industry in Australia. 

Afterall, this is the play that won seven Helpmann Awards in 2019. In defeating Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, it not only made headlines in mainstream Australian news publications, but it filled many hearts (and WhatsApp groups) of the South Asian diaspora with glee. You can’t be what you can’t see – and this play chronicling the journey of a Sri Lankan Australian family over four generations that’s been torn by Sri Lanka’s civil war has been a win for authentic storytelling and representation. 

Shakthidharan grew up “very cynical about the mainstream Australian arts industry”, including the awards system within it.

“As far as I could see, where most of the money was going was to things that weren't representative of Australia [and] what it was like as a contemporary multicultural nation. It felt like Australia from the 1950s was what a lot of our industry was about,” he tells Draw Your Box.

“So, when Counting & Cracking got nominated for these awards, I felt like those awards were from the part of the industry that had ignored us for so long.”

Shakthidharan hesitated even attending the awards ceremony, but his wife and his mum managed to convince him otherwise. 

“I was very cynical about it all, and then when we won, a few things happened. My uncle sent around this WhatsApp saying, ‘Shakthi’s project beat Harry Potter,’ and it was a way of realising the scale of what this show meant.” 

There was also increased media attention, and the acknowledgment from other people in the arts of “how much it meant to them that for the first time ever, a production led by people of colour, was winning these awards”. 

Shakthidharan “dropped” the cynicism around these awards. “I’ve come to realise it's very important who wins what awards, and we deserve a seat at the table and our stories deserve a seat at the table,” he says. “Counting & Cracking winning those awards means that other productions and other people get to come through a door that's slightly more open now.” 

The cast of Counting and Cracking

Image Source: Supplied/Brett Boardman

In Counting & Cracking, audiences meet Radha and her son, Siddhartha as they release the ashes of Radha’s mother on the banks of the Georges River in Sydney. In doing so, they’re parting ways with their final connection to the past, to Sri Lanka and its struggles – and are readying themselves to freely embrace their lives in Australia. But a phone call from Colombo sparks a confrontation with the past, where viewers are plunged into “a story of love and political strife, of home and exile, of parents and children”. 

As a story navigating the past and present of a family from Sri Lanka to Sydney – a story that isn’t often told in mainstream media – Counting & Cracking has opened various doors. As Shakthidharan alludes when speaking about winning awards, it has given more culturally diverse creatives a platform to realise and showcase their work. It has also elevated more South Asian performers on stage. It has given a voice to a community that’s still grappling with lingering trauma from the civil war in Sri Lanka. And in turn, it has also empowered many South Asians to go to the theatre. 

It’s the latter aspect that Anandavalli emphasises when speaking about the significance of the play that Shakthidharan has brought to life in collaboration with Belvoir St Theatre's Artistic Director, Eamon Flack. Besides being Shakthidharan’s mother and a classical dancer of over 50 years in her own right, Anandavalli is also the key adviser on costume, movement and language in Counting & Cracking

“Our people, [meaning] many of the Sri Lankan and Indian audience, don't go to the theatre. I go to the theatre a lot,” she laughs. “But they need to go to experience what theatre can give them, not just as a form of their story, but also the fact that their story can be on a stage as a form of a theatrical experience.

“It’s a totally different experience to sitting at home watching TV and a Bollywood movie, or going to a Bollywood show.” 

Counting & Cracking features Tamil, Singhalese and English dialogue, Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam choreographed by Anandavalli, and 19 performers from six countries. Anandavalli describes herself as somewhat of the “backbone” of the production, ensuring every detail is culturally appropriate and accurate. 

“Whether it's spacing on stage or the delivery of a language… those things have to be corrected,” says Anandavalli, who was forced to leave Sri Lanka due to the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms in Sri Lanka, commonly referred to as ‘Black July’. This life experience helps inform her direction, which Shakthidharan believes is instrumental in ensuring authentic storytelling in Counting & Cracking. 

“My mum has all these very special capabilities, because of her unique life experience, that make certain aspects of the show possible,” he says. “We want to get all those details right, like the accent that someone has from a rich Colombo family… their Tamil accent is different to how someone from Jaffna speaks.” 

The cast of Counting and Cracking

Image Source: Supplied/Brett Boardman

The production doesn’t shy away from touching on intergenerational trauma, political unrest and family dynamics. It has helped Shakthidharan learn more about his family. It has also helped Anandavalli process her own feelings and memories.  

“I've never been able to forgive everybody, including myself for what happened in 1983,” says Anandavalli, but adds that “Counting & Cracking has given me a way to not create a wall”. 

No doubt the play will spark a strong emotional response, particularly to those who have lived experience or connection to the historic events and themes explored. But Shakthidharan invites audiences to have an open mind and embrace the multidimensional experience of watching Counting & Cracking. It can be an opportunity to come together with loved ones, to learn and share, and to heal. 

“We can't afford to not be vulnerable,” says Shakthidharan. “We can't afford to look away from the more difficult aspects of our past and yet at the same time, there's a way to do that that doesn't force us to confront the difficult things we've gone through alone,” he explains.

“The play kind of holds your hand throughout. It goes for three-and-a-half hours. It's a lot of fun at the beginning, and it's very clear that it's our stories on stage.

“If people are resolutely committed to never confronting the past for the rest of their lives, so be it, everyone can make their own decisions,” he continues.

“But if there's even a small part of them that says, ‘You know what, I care about what my children know about me. I care about how our history continues and the knowledge of that to future generations, and I care about healing my wounds,’ then I think there's no better way to do it than through the arts. And that's what I hope the show can do for those people who are willing to do it.” 

Counting and Cracking is playing in Melbourne at Rising: with UMAC from May 31 to June 23, at Carriageworks in Sydney from June 28 to July 21, and in New York from September 6 to September 22.