Burning incense fills the Lyceum theatre, inviting us far away from Scotland. Colourful banners hang above the stage and the backdrop is a patchwork of canvas rectangles. Large corrugated iron gates are swung open at the rear and the floor is covered in sandy sawdust. The impression is one of heat and urbanity, and it is clear we have travelled to the Southern hemisphere.

Counting and Cracking is brought to the Edinburgh International Festival by Australia’s Belvoir St Theatre and is written by S. Shakthidharan. Drawn from his own heritage, this epic play is a family saga that spans decades and countries, beginning in Australia, where protagonist Radha lives, before shifting back in time to Sri Lanka where she was born and raised. Told in three acts (and a grand three and a half hours), the opening chapter closes with the reveal of a secret, opening up Radha’s past to her son Siddhartha, who knows very little about his mother’s background. The second and third acts then expand beyond Radha and Siddhartha’s Australian life and explore further branches of their family tree, delving into other characters, social traditions, political systems, and family interactions.

This is a narrative compiled in layers. On one hand, it is simply a love story. It’s also a story of lineage and personal history. More broadly, the play acts as a window to Sri Lankan history and the huge political conflicts in the 1970s and 80s that led to civil war. No aspect feels more important or weighted than others, though, and these multiple layers of meaning are all accessible and engaging.

Despite the broad scope of the storytelling and heavy themes, there is well-placed humour throughout that brings levity and warmth. Beautiful live music scores each scene, building mood, tension, and calm without ever distracting us or drawing attention to itself. Another key strength here is the actors. The intense and captivating performances of the large cast feel like powerful acts of endurance and there are no weak links. Even the supporting players are impressive, acting as translators at various points as well as living props, deftly lifting objects around the stage for the main cast to interact with and fulfilling multiple roles throughout the evening.

Counting and Cracking ends triumphantly and leaves a strong mark having guided us through a complex historical and family chronicle. This is emotive, epic theatre that merits its lengthy running time.