Belvoir St Theatre, November 16


You see that fake-tanned liar announce he’s standing for US President again, and you fear for his country. Sri Lanka knows about civil war too well, especially the poor Tamils. All wars are horrific, but civil war compounds the horrors with neighbour slaughtering neighbour and even family betraying family. It is evil unleashed upon one’s own. It is the stuff of nightmares and mythology, and the stuff of which The Jungle and the Sea is made. All three hours of it.

Written and directed by S Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack (the team behind 2019’s Counting and Cracking), the play lifts the half-healed scab on the Sri Lankan Civil War. Although essentially about one family, it is epic in its ambition, sprawling across time (15 years), geography (traversing not just Sri Lanka, but stretching all the way to Sydney’s Bennelong restaurant), literary sources (from the Mahabharatha to Antigone) and from words to music and dance.

Anandavalli. Photos: Sriram Jeyaraman.

Not since Opera Australia’s 1980s production of Fiddler on the Roof have I seen a piece of theatre where the use of a revolve in the staging was so intrinsic to the story-telling. Continuously rotating at subtly fluctuating tempos, the revolve is both map and clock. It defines a world in constant flux, and, as it did in Fiddler, it provides the perfect theatrical metaphor for people journeying in search of an imagined paradise of safety.

The play, here having its world premiere, is dense, complex, subtle and too long. I understand it needs time to convey time: to impart that so much happens to so many characters. Yet, by its sheer duration (with two intervals), it ceases to be as taut as it wants to be. The telling develops a flaccidity that is anathema to the story being told.

That said, much of it is extraordinary, and in an age when possibilities of theatre seem to be ever shrinking to the literal, the domestic and the ticking of boxes, this dares to dream on an epic scale (like Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica), while confronting us with the evil perpetrated against the Tamil people in the name of fighting terrorism. The revolve apart, Dale Ferguson’s set is just two walls pockmarked by bullets.

Emma Harvie. Photos: Sriram Jeyaraman.

Several of the miked-up cast of eight play more than one role, and it takes us a while to become conversant with the characters and relationships. There are no weak links among the actors. Anandavalli plays Gowrie, the mother who blindfolds herself when her family is scattered to the four winds by the war, refusing to remove this blindfold until they are reunited. Both she and Prakash Belawadi, who plays her husband, Siva, and a Catholic priest, are commanding presences upon the stage. The scene between Siva and his daughter Lakshmi (Emma Harvie) in the Sydney restaurant (while a miniature, candle-lit Harbour Bridge revolves around them) is as finely wrought as a fugue, as he comes to accommodate her lesbianism atop her atheism.

Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Nadie Kammallaweera, Jacob Rajan, Rajan Velu and Biman Wimalaratne complete the cast, while musicians Indu Balachandran (veena) and Arjunan Puveendran (mridangam and vocals) are as interwoven into the play’s fabric as the revolve.

Breaking with much contemporary, screen-derived playwriting custom, most of the scenes are long, and several are agonising. The point of the play is that true healing can only come with the cleansing of the wound – with truth. Sri Lanka still shies from this (just as Australia shies from its misbegotten treatment of Tamil refugees).

Until December 18.