Tsunami survivors discover hope on Edinburgh stage

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The Independent Online

They are performing Children of the Sea, a new production for the Edinburgh Festival that is based on Pericles. The Fringe-First winning director Toby Gough has brought 14 young actors, predominantly teenagers, from Sri Lanka to perform alongside professionals in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, where their tsunami stories have been woven into Shakespeare's narrative about the ravaging power of the sea.

"This is the first time any of these kids have performed in public," Gough said yesterday on the eve of the first performance. "And it is a wonderful part of their whole journey after the tsunami. When they return to Sri Lanka, they will be great beacons of hope to all the children."

Two months ago, the teenagers' Edinburgh adventure looked to have ended when, with their paperwork and passports lost to the tsunami, UK visas were denied to them.

Assistance came, however, in the unlikely form of the Australian pop star, Kylie Minogue, who, along with hundreds of others, wrote to the British High Commission to plead their case. Minogue has since taken the production under her wing, contributing to costs and sponsoring an orphaned actor.

Her investment has paid off. Pratheepan, at 27, one of the oldest members of the troupe, who has lived in the war-torn area of Trincomelle all his life, first got involved through Anoja Weerasinghe, whose Anoja Foundation helps children combat trauma through acting.

"I have always seen shooting and war but this was different," he says. "My relatives were involved in the area affected by the tsunami and I went to help . What I found was very disturbing. Lots of my family were dead."

Pratheepan explains how the Children of the Sea project has helped him. "Now I sing, and write poems. My song, which is about the tsunami and the civil war, starts the play. I have this wonderful opportunity."

One of the many young women in the ensemble, Rasika Muthukumarna, 19, is just grateful to be alive. "When I saw the tsunami I ran. I got on to the second floor of a house. We were trapped. And we saw the wave coming at us. We've lost everything, and we now live in a camp. We just want to get out of the camp."

The teenagers speak as much about the drudgery of the temporary camps as the initial trauma of the tsunami. And Gough is adamant that his actors use this festival experience to help them through their country's painful period of recuperation.

"We're turning them from being victims, into a part of a pro-active healing process", the director said. "To see two or three thousand people watching and enjoying a story which is essentially about them, will be incredibly helpful too. Above all, we want to show the audience and ourselves the indomitability of the human spirit."