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The Jungle and the Sea

The Jungle and the Sea
Writers: S.Shakthidharan, Eamon Flack
Directors: S.Shakthidharan, Eamon Flack
Belvoir Street Theatre
November 17 – December 18, 2022

Co-written and directed by S.Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack, the deeply moving The Jungle and the Sea is prequel to the internationally successful and award-winning Counting and Cracking. While Counting and Cracking offered the possibility of healing for Sri Lankans who had migrated to Australia, The Jungle and the Sea focuses on the many horrors of the Singhalese-Tamil civil war that impelled Sri Lankans to leave their homeland.

The compelling figure of Gowrie (Anandavalli), the mother of four children and pivot of their daily life,  dominates the play. When we meet her first she is performing a dance blindfolded, her every gesture expressive of deep loss and sorrowful longing and learn later that when her son joined the Tamil Tigers she took a vow to remain blindfolded until her family could be reunited.

With her two supportive daughters, feisty Abi (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and bird-obsessed Madlu (Nadie Kammallaweera) – who carry considerable and hopeful luggage, all of it abandoned on the way – she embarks on a journey to find her son and her children’s brother.

A safe place is hard to find, and horrifying incidents highlight the challenge of trust. While we are shown the family happily enjoying themselves at the beach in earlier times – their father (Prakash Belawadi) jovial and indulgent, the siblings excited and ambitious, the beginnings of a romance – a leaflet drops into their cheerful life like a bomb. There is war and they must find safety.

Seeking official advice, they and others flee to their church which is bombed, killing many and blinding their father. Is it, like many other events – the bombing of so-called safe zones, the killing of refugees and detainees – a deliberate betrayal by their own government? The inclusion of an Antigone-like conflict between “ordinary actions” – respect for the dead – and the government’s need to enhance its own authority by denying “terrorists” burial, drives home the universal capacity of power to dehumanise.

There are moments of joyfulness despite the violence. The long journey is a way of including moments of generosity, of tolerance for other beliefs and ethnicities, of poetry, of loving kindness – the marriage of Abi and Himal (Raja Velan) is a quietly impressive moment – and camaraderie. While relief from the setting of civil war – the terror of bombardment scarily evoked by two musicians (Indra Balachandran and Arjunan Puveendran) on traditional instruments – is offered by the comical interaction between the youngest daughter Lakshmi (Emma Harvie) and her father in Sydney as she tells him she is a lesbian, it somehow seems a little too much like “a set piece”.

The stage setting is beautifully simple. The back wall is pitted with bullet holes which at times can be stars, coastal or city lights, and a revolving stage signals changes in place, in feeling, in action and in time. When, for instance, the family camp the pace slows almost to a standstill but once they are on the move – by bus, truck, walking – the pace picks up becoming relentless. The turning “wheel” also serves to indicate the contrast between the sweeping movement of larger forces over which individuals have little control with the smaller, intimate gestures of personal relationships.

The last moments of the powerfully disturbing The Jungle and the Sea are unforgettably beautiful. We hope Australia is such a sanctuary as the brief glimpses we are given of it in the play suggest, and we hope that past and painful conflicts will never be reactivated within this nation.

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