Sri Lankan Australian epic family saga to return to Australian stage

Belvoir’s 2024 season will be a “gift” for audiences, says artistic director Eamon Flack, who has designed a distinctly accessible program headlined by tried and tested audience favourites — including new productions of Broadway and West End juggernaut The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American hit August: Osage County.

Sydney has previously seen blockbuster productions of both: The National Theatre’s Olivier and Tony award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel toured Australia in 2018, while the original Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of August: Osage County was a crowning jewel of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 season.

Belvoir audiences can expect scaled-down stagings of both these international behemoths, to fit the intimate 330-seat Surry Hills theatre, with its idiosyncratic corner-style stage. The casts, however, will be hefty: eight for Curious Incident, led by rising star Daniel R. Nixon, and 13 for August: Osage County, led by Pamela Rabe (Wentworth; Deadloch).

A Mauritian Australian man in a suit sits on a chair near an Anglo Australian woman looking glum, and another laughing.
Family tragicomedy August: Osage County will feature a cast of 13, headlined by Pamela Rabe (centre), Bert LaBonté (left) and Helen Thomson (right).(Supplied: Belvoir)

The crowning jewel of Belvoir’s 2024 season, meanwhile, is a homegrown juggernaut: Counting and Cracking, the epic Sri Lankan Australian family saga first staged by Belvoir in 2019 (as part of Sydney Festival), will return to Sydney, following a successful UK tour in August 2022, during which it earned a 5-star review from The Times.

The multigenerational, transcontinental saga, which was inspired by the family of its writer and associate director S. Shakthidharan, is one of the most ambitious pieces of Australian theatre in recent years, with a cast of 19 (including three on-stage musicians) and a run-time of more than 3.5 hours. That ambition was rewarded: Counting and Cracking’s Sydney and Adelaide seasons sold out, and the show won a staggering seven Helpmann Awards, as well as the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature (Australia’s richest literary prize).

Belvoir has been looking to remount it since then, with the most obvious obstacle being the COVID lockdowns, and the second being a dearth of suitable local venues for the massive show. When Fergus Linehan, who had programmed Counting and Cracking at the 2022 Edinburgh International Festival, was announced in May as the incoming CEO of Carriageworks, the stars aligned; the show will open there in June 2024, with most of the original key cast returning.

A backlit woman on stage  in a traditional Sri Lankan outfit holds hands with a man facing away from the camera.
In Counting and Cracking, we’re transported from contemporary Western Sydney to 1980s Colombo, Sri Lanka.(Supplied: Belvoir/Brett Boardman)

Another tried-and-tested local hit making its return is Holding The Man, playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s much-loved 1995 memoir of life, love and death during Australia’s AIDS crisis, which was first at Belvoir in 2007, and has become a contemporary Australian classic (it was subsequently adapted for screen, helmed by Belvoir’s former artistic director, Neil Armfield).

Flack, who auditioned for the original stage adaptation, says the book and play are close to his heart.

“I think for a lot of gay men, that book has a very deep resonance: That could have been me.”

But he says time has revealed a different side to the story: “I think, actually, it’s a history of Australia in the 70s and 80s, told through the life and death of two gay men.”

It’s also an inherently joyful play, says Flack: “The theatrical game of the piece is a lot more joyful than the film [version], where everything is presented literally. The offer that Tommy [Murphy] made [by having] six actors playing all the roles, is [about] remembering that this story is actually full of joy, not just about someone dying.”

Bald man with light stubble and soft brown eyes looks pensively at the camera while leaning against a backstage wall.
Belvoir’s artistic director Eamon Flack (pictured) will direct Holding The Man,  August: Osage County and Counting and Cracking. (ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

Feel-good theatre

Flack cited cost of living pressures as one factor informing Belvoir’s 2024 season.

“It’s a really whacked time, and there’s a lot on people’s minds. And so we were like, ‘Let’s just kind of make it a very generous [season] next year,” he told ABC.

“We want to make it very easy for people to come to, and love, theatre.”

There’s a strand of feel-good plays: Anita Heiss’s adaptation of her “chick lit” novel of female friendship, Tiddas, coming to Belvoir following a popular season at Brisbane’s La Boite in September 2022; Carmel Dean’s song cycle Well-Behaved Women, in which four local powerhouses (including Ursula Yovich and Zahra Newman) embody women of history — from Cleopatra to Cathy Freeman; and Nia Vardalos’s popular hit Tiny Beautiful Things, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her time as an anonymous online “agony aunt”.

An older woman with grey hair sits on a couch; a younger woman sits near her and touches her face tenderly, smiling.
Roxanne McDonald as Mum and Shakira Clanton as Xanthe in Tiddas at Queensland Performing Arts Centre.(Supplied: La Boite)

Anita Heiss talks Tiddas on RN’s Awaye!

A woman smiles for a portrait wearing purple framed glasses and a purple top.

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Tiny Beautiful Things is coming to Belvoir from Queensland Theatre, where it opened in July, starring Mandy McElhinney as Cheryl Strayed: the ex-heroin addict turned author, who is perhaps best known for her New York Times bestseller Wild (based on her experience trekking the Pacific Crest Trail), which was further popularised by Reese Witherspoon’s 2014 film adaptation.

The stage adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things, by My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos, premiered Off-Broadway in 2016, and went on to become a sell-out hit. A screen adaptation by Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine premiered in April 2023, winning critical acclaim.

Belvoir has been eyeing the show for some time: “We had been close to doing it in the past,” says Flack.

“The way [Cheryl Strayed] uses her own life, and her own stories, in order to try and offer other people some wisdom, is incredibly beautiful — and really heroic, actually.”

New Australian voices

Rounding out the season is a trio of new Australian plays by emerging writers: Mandela Mathia’s autobiographical one-man show Lose to Win; Grace Chapple’s friendship drama Never Closer, set during the Troubles in Ireland, and inspired by her mother and aunt; and Nithya Nagarajan and Liv Satchell’s show Nayika: A Dancing Girl, inspired by and starring Vaishnavi Suryaprakash (who won a Helpmann Award for her role in Counting and Cracking), a highly skilled Bharatanatyam dancer.

Three young people - one man and two women - in what looks like a living room, cheersing someone unseen.
Raj Labade, Mabel Li and Ariadne Sgouros play friends reunited – with explosive results – in Never Closer, which premiered at Belvoir’s downstairs theatre in 2022.(Supplied: Belvoir)

The first two come to Belvoir’s main stage after previous iterations: A version of Mathia’s show, which was developed as part of the company’s COVID-response program Artists At Work, showed at the Old Fitz theatre in Woolloomooloo in 2022; and Never Closer, which premiered on the downstairs stage last year, directed by Belvoir’s resident director Hannah Goodwin, will transfer upstairs with the same cast.

Flack, who saw Never Closer twice last year, says: “It was the most accomplished all-round piece of writing, directing, ensemble acting [and] staging that I had seen in a really, really long time.”

And while Belvoir’s 2024 season is dominated by big shows and established hits, Flack says it’s these new Australian works, and emerging voices and talents, that are crucial for the company’s success.

“Theatre is an estate that has to be [tended]; we have to keep it alive, we have to keep growing artists,” he says.

“And that’s actually the way forward.”

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