Counting and Cracking: how division destroys wellbeing


‘Counting and Cracking’ is a great play, which premiered at the 2019 Sydney Festival, with all tickets being quickly sold out. Its second staging was at the 2019 Adelaide Festival. The play swept the boards at the 2019 Helpmann awards, winning 7 of the 8 categories for which it was nominated, including Best New Australian Work, Best Production and Best Direction. A plan is now being put in place to re-stage the play in Sydney, take it nationally and internationally. This is a must see play.

‘Counting and Cracking’ from the Belvoir Theatre, reflects playwright Shakthidharan Sivanathan’s journey to discover his Sri Lankan roots and the background to the murderous riots against the Tamils in 1983, which caused his family to migrate to Australia, when he was only 3 years old.  In so doing, the play highlights the consequences of the politics of division. It is a particularly timely reminder in an era which has seen leaders such as Donald Trump, and various others in Europe, Asia and South America come to power precisely on this theme.

The universality of the central themes make it a play which everyone should be able to relate to. But it is more than a political drama. Bringing the story to life through personal stories and experience, gives the play depth in terms of humanity, creating emotional engagement and empathy. Remarkably, while the play deals with dark issues, it is interspersed with humour and the engagement with the audience is easy and just flows to a perfect rhythm.

The play explores the dreadful consequences of division through the eyes and experiences of a Sri Lankan Tamil family. While the opening scenes are based in Australia, through a series of flashbacks, the evolution of the extended family’s story in Sri Lanka is brought to life. In so doing, the play takes on the character of a Shakespearean epic, with betrayal, the cynical pursuit of power, revenge, love, loyalty, hope and compassion being some of the main themes weaved into the story.

While it is easy to condemn the role of various Sinhalese leaders, people and the army for their systematic  discrimination against the Tamils and sometimes use of brutal force, the play draws out the nuances of a complex situation. We get an insight into why the majority Sinhalese, non-English literate, rural poor were drawn to the cynical, demagogic rhetoric of a politician, Mr Bandaranaike, who came from a wealthy, Oxford English educated elite. The parallels with Trump’s America are striking where a billionaire businessman has somehow been able to give voice to a significant, long ignored, under-class.

The politics of division unleash powerful forces which are hard to control. Following the first major Sinhalese-Tamil riots in May 1958 which occurred within two years of him coming to power, Mr Bandaranaike tried to moderate his policies. But the Opposition had now adopted his policies and prevented his attempt to reach a pact with Tamil leaders. Soon after he was shot dead by a Buddhist monk who felt that he was betraying the Sinhalese.

The play gives us an understanding of why 13 years later, the educated Sinhalese youth, frustrated by the failure of the rhetoric of Sinhalese leaders to meet their expectations, launched a Marxist inspired revolt to try and topple Mr Bandaranaike’s wife, who was now the Prime Minister. Around 5,000 of these revolutionary youth were killed by the army, many of whose parents voted to put Mr Bandaranaike into power in the first place.

At the same time, the policies of division created the foundations for the resentment of Tamil youth, culminating in the rise of the Tamil Tigers. Over two decades later Mr Bandaranaike’s elder daughter Chandrika, who had become President, narrowly escaped death and permanently lost the sight of her right eye when a member of the Tiger’s suicide brigade targeted her.

Ironically Chandrika’s husband Vijaya, who was also a politician, had been assassinated some years earlier by the latest uprising of the Sinhalese leftis youth. Politicians from both sides of the fence ended up being assassinated and over hundred thousand people were killed as a result of the politics of division.

Image result for photos of the bandaranaike family
Mrs Bandaranaike, praying at the coffin of her slain husband, had two terms as Prime Minister. The latter term saw the suppression of an attempted Marxist revolution by frustrated Sinhalese youth, who later, also assassinated her son-in-law, while her daughter Chandrika narrowly survived an attack by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

We understand, though do not sympathise, with the Sinhalese policeman, whose torture of a Tiger suspect, acts as an outlet for his hatred against the group who killed his son. We see that that perpetrators of violence and injustice can also be victims. There are no winners in this story and the losers are massive, encompassing in essence the entire population of Sri Lanka.  And interspersed with the political story, is the personal story of the family. Our hearts reach out to them as we share their story of devastation, but yet there are elements of love, resilience and ultimately of hope. We walk away contemplating the complexity of the human condition and a deep and nuanced understanding of post-colonial Sri Lankan history.

In the history of the world, there are a small number of leaders who were able to come to power using moral suasion to unify people. Their impact and rarity causes people people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to be revered and cherished. More often than not, weak and corrupt leaders seek power by promoting the politics of division.

Student of history may recall the story of Germany where a group of intellectuals backed Hitler, recognising that his insane, simplistic, siren calls appealed to working class Germans who had been devastated by the era of the Weimar Republic. The Jews in this case were the victims of being blamed for all of Germany’s woes. Those same German voters who opted to support this divisive rhetoric, became the cannon fodder of the Second World War with over 7 million dying and their country being destroyed, though not before a dreadful cost was inflicted on the Jewish community through Europe.

At a deeper level, the War including the Asian theatre, reflected the outcome of the long term rise of nationalism and conquest of foreign countries by European powers over a number of centuries, competing to build the biggest empire. Over 70 million people, or 3% of the world’s population were killed and the consequences of the era of European empires built using the double edged weapon of divide and conquer, are still being acutely felt around the world.

We wonder with apprehension what disasters the current generation of demagogic leaders who have come to power in many countries, preaching the same politics of division, railing against minorities in their country, be they Mexicans, blacks, whites, Christians, Sunni, Shia, atheists or refugees, will end up bestowing both on their followers and the rest of the world. How we wonder, do our leaders in Australia rate as dividers or unifiers?

The political story brought to life so brilliantly by Counting and Cracking is not a new one. But hopefully the play will be seen around the world. And people will learn, before it is too late, from the tragic tale of modern Sri Lanka.

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