Children of the Sea in rehearsal, Sri Lanka 2005


July 2005 Scotland on Sunday

THE STAGE is behind a cobra's nest and beneath four towering coconut trees, their fruit dangling perilously overhead. The actors have seen off the poisonous centipede they discovered under a brick but they can't rule out an attack of fire ants, termites or mosquitoes.

"The hazards of outdoor theatre," chirps director Toby Gough standing in the sauna-like sun of southern Sri Lanka. "If we can time the coconuts to drop at the right moments, it might be OK."

No one seems too concerned. A couple of boys scale the trees to shake down the ripest coconuts – huge, yellow balls containing pints of deliciously rich milk – and there's a vague agreement to avoid standing on the snake nest, but otherwise, the show must go on.

That show, Children of the Sea – based on Shakespeare's Pericles – is set to be the most timely show Gough has ever brought to Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden. Since the early 90s, the 35-year-old has staged a string of vivacious Fringe performances featuring Africans, Ukrainians, Croatians, Tibetans, Barbadians – even one year Dannii Minogue – typically performed promenade-style around the rare species of the Botanics. Now he is in Sri Lanka preparing a similarly exuberant show that will give a voice to the teenage victims of the tsunami.

Six months to the day since those two apocalyptic waves crashed onto the shores, taking with them over 36,000 people in this country alone, we're standing in an outdoor Buddhist temple on a hilltop in Matara. In front of us is a gleaming white bell-shaped shrine, a perfect backdrop to tonight's performance. Below us to our left is the Indian Ocean, looking seductive and innocent where once it was cruel and merciless.

"Use the sea," shouts Gough as he directs the 14 first-time actors in their new space. "It's beautiful."

The girls are singing a sad lament in Sinhalese: "Old sea waves/ You have kidnapped us/ We were expecting independence from the war/ But you have washed over us."

Performers from Children of the Sea, Sri Lanka 2005


Six weeks ago, even the sight of the ocean was enough to alarm the girls, who range in age from 15 to 19. Gough had taken them to the beach for a photo shoot, little realising that the trauma of Boxing Day had kept them away from the sea ever since. "I wasn't expecting to see their real fear of going near the sea," he says. "None of them was able to swim, which is a common thing here, and they were initially very scared. They were all crying and I felt very bad. But after about 20 minutes, they were in the sea, playing around, pushing each other in and laughing. A week later we asked them where they'd like to go for a day out and all they wanted to do was go back to the sea."

With him was Anoja Weerasinghe, one of Sri Lanka's most famous film and stage actors who has put aside the trappings of celebrity to run confidence-building arts workshops for the displaced children. "I came with a group of artists from Colombo to Matara four days after the tsunami to see if we could at least talk to people and give them some courage," she says. "The smell of death was terrible. There were piles of rubble everywhere. It was horrifying. A woman recognised me and came running to me and held my hand. She was just shivering and looking at me, tears rolling down her face, not saying anything. Then after a couple of minutes, she smiled so beautifully and said, 'I thought I could never smile again, but now I know I can smile.' That was the day I decided we could do something to bring these people back to life."

For 19-year-old performer Rasika Muthukumarana, the events of Boxing Day left her with a lasting fear of the water. She'd been asleep in her seafront house when she was woken by the screams of her family. "I came out and saw the big wave," she recalls. "It didn't break and it moved very slowly, like a walking black mountain. It made the sound a heater makes – soooooooo. For a long time I couldn't put on a heater because I was so scared of that sound."

While her brother carried their mother, Rasika and her sister ran hand in hand in search of safety. The main road was packed with terrified people, many naked. "We could hear the waves coming and the buildings collapsing – the sound was terrible – so we headed to the byroads and kept running," she says. "We came to a house and my uncle said we should run into it. We'd only climbed about six steps when the waves came and hit us, we held onto the railings and with very much difficulty we climbed.

"When the third wave came, the house started shaking and we thought it would collapse so we jumped in the water and held onto each other for balance. We were pulled down and swallowed the water and caught by a wave going back to sea. It took us very fast and eventually, somehow, we ended up on the main road. I had a big cut on my leg but I was so terrified I didn't notice. For a couple of days we were just sitting and waiting – I couldn't sleep at all. And for a long time every time I heard a three-wheeler in the night, I got up."

Costume try-out for Children of the Sea, Sri Lanka 2005


We've driven from the temple to the corrugated iron shack that Rasika and her family, who all survived, now call home. The five of them live in two small rooms divided by nothing but a thin metal wall. There are flaps for windows and gaps where the walls meet the ceiling. Above the table and four plastic chairs are a clock, a calendar and a small shrine. In the next room is a bed, three mattresses and a shelf bending beneath the weight of their belongings. Toilets and showers are communal.

Rudimentary though it is, this is one of the better examples of the temporary homes that have sprung up to cope with the 553,000 displaced by the tsunami. It has a Formica floor not bare earth. It is not a tent or a windowless wooden hut. It has electricity, albeit as erratically supplied as it is throughout the country.

As we talk, Rasika's sister appears with a tray of sweet tea in china cups. The tsunami took many things but not their pride.

The estimates are that people will be living like this for seven years. Although the charities long ago told us they had all the money they needed, there isn't much sign of it here. The government has an enormous problem, of course, but it’s been compounded by a seemingly sensible decision to ban any building closer than 100m – sometimes 300m – from the sea. If that's where your house previously stood, however, you have nowhere to build a new one.

"The sad thing about Sri Lankan politics is the government is trying to safeguard the government, opposition is trying to come into power and nobody's worried about these people," says Weerasinghe. "After six months people are still living in these camps which have been built by NGOs, not government."

Unlike many global disasters, the tsunami was not of mankind's making but many of its after-effects are. Hana Al Hadad, 27, is the project manager on Children of the Sea, a performance which springs from her work with young people who have been mentally scarred by the tsunami and the 20-year civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. She knows it is the displaced children who are most vulnerable to abuse, violence, trafficking, army conscription and exploitation and who need the most protection.

"After the tsunami you would get people posing as aid workers coming into Sri Lanka, claiming to own an orphanage in India and offering to take the children away," she says. "A lot of them were taken to the red light district in Calcutta. It got so bad that Sri Lanka banned any form of adoption outside the country. A month after the tsunami, I met a girl of 8 or 9. Her face was completely blank. She told me that on the day of the tsunami her entire family had been swept away and she was left holding onto a branch. She was just about to let go when a man extended his hand and told her he would help. As soon as she took his hand, he dragged her into the bushes, forced her to the ground and raped her. He told her that if she screamed he would kill her and no one would know. Once he was done with her, he wandered off. That happens everywhere."

The purpose of Hadad's work here is to improve the girls' self-image, independence and self-direction and, after only three weeks, the transformation has been radical. "A lot of the kids are trapped in their own dreams," she says. "They have these recurring dreams and they don't know how to express them. After the workshops, they still have the dreams but they feel better about them."

"The workshops have helped me a lot," says Rasika. "I was really angry with the sea and it helped me to get over it. I didn’t do my A levels and I didn't have much confidence because I didn't study. Now I have confidence because my life has found a different direction and I can do something else."

Within a matter of weeks, Rasika has blossomed from a frightened child to an assertive young woman.

Collecting coconuts, Children of the Sea, Sri Lanka 2005


"AY ME! poor maid,
Born in a tempest, when my mother died,
This world to me is like a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends."

As usual, Shakespeare gets there first. These words from Pericles, Prince of Tyre are as resonant in today's Sri Lanka as they ever were. Indeed, the whole play, featuring two ferocious storms, families torn apart and believed dead and procurement into the child sex trade, has uncanny parallels with the story of the Asian tsunami. For Gough, this fairy tale narrative was the obvious choice on which to base his show.

Although Children of the Sea is primarily built on song and dance – from traditional Candian to modern Bollywood – it follows Shakespeare closely. When Pericles discovers that the king has committed incest with his daughter, he flees for his life. Wandering the world, he is shipwrecked and saved. He marries Princess Thaisa and is again cast into a storm during which his wife gives birth and dies. He entrusts his daughter, Marina, to the care of friends, but 16 years later the young woman is captured by pirates and sold to a brothel. Eventually, through a miraculous turn of events Pericles, Thaisa and Marina are reunited.

"Shakespeare uses the sea as a metaphor for cleansing, rejuvenating and resurrecting," says Gough. "Marina is brought to meet Pericles who has been in trauma and has been grieving in silence, which you see a lot of here – people who don't speak any more. Through her music and dance, she liberates his voice, allowing him to tell his story. That's a perfect analogy for what we're doing here. Through music and dance we're trying to reawaken the voice within these people."

In the role of Marina, 17-year-old Amali Range can't help but identify with the story. She was not directly affected by the tsunami but lost her father when he was tortured and killed in the civil war. She was just 18 months old at the time and has known nothing but war ever since.

"All my life I have been scared," she says. "Even if I take a book into my hands I am shivering because I can always hear the sounds of the bombing. If a helicopter flies overhead I shiver. We can't go to school before 8am because we have to wait until the army clears the road. Even staying at home I am not safe and I'm always afraid that someone will come and chop me into pieces. That fear is with me all the time, so I can't study properly and my state of mind is very low. I see children without legs because of landmines, others who have been blinded or lost their hearing – that could happen to me at any time.

Sunset performance of Children of the Sea, Sri Lanka 2005


"Anoja is like a mother to me and the workshops have given me strength. I am sure I can go back to my town and help other girls like me to find their strength. The first time I had to dance was so difficult for me because I am a sad person but the training I got helped me stop worrying about things. When I'm doing the scene with Pericles, it is like my own story because I lost my father 16 years ago and so did Marina. I could really connect to that scene. But with the happy scenes it was so difficult because I have never been happy."

As the morning rehearsal stretches into the blazing heat of the afternoon, we hear a Tannoy announcement from down the hill. Without being asked, Ujith Amaraweera has taken it upon himself to publicise the show, although his only connection is his involvement in a workshop with Gough four weeks ago.

"Before I participated in the workshop I couldn't sleep," says Amaraweera whose home and food business was taken away by the tsunami. "But after the second day of the workshop I had a great sleep. Because of the tsunami I had this great experience. Now we are all sleeping well. It was a therapy for us to know that everything that happened to Pericles long ago has happened to us."

That evening, his efforts with the loud speaker help gather an audience in excess of 800: the first time the community has come together to think about their shared trauma. Right until the last moment, Gough is adding and changing things, as he will continue to do throughout the show's Edinburgh run, trusting that the honesty of the performances will count for more than theatrical polish.

His instinct is right. It's rare to see such unaffected acting. Just as much as the teenagers, the adult professionals – such as Rawiri Paratene, star of the Maori film Whale Rider – instinctively understand this is not something remote or abstract, a meaningless piece of entertainment, but a shared story that communicates directly with the audience.

The crowd loves the joke about the man stuck up a tree escaping from the water, and the caricatures of the two politicians failing to get to grips with the people's problems. Even a burst of torrential rain mid-performance cannot hold them back: the girls keep dancing and the audience make umbrellas from their plastic chairs, staying with it right to the end.

"I have never seen anything like this before," says the chief priest of the temple, looking beatific in his orange robes. "I'm so happy to see something good like this. The state of mind of the children of the tsunami was very low and this type of work will definitely help them to build up their confidence. I'm so happy for the community: not only the children, but the audience have been very demoralised and they really enjoyed it. It didn’t feel like a 400-year-old story. The audience laughed because this was the truth."

Children of the Sea, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, August 3–28

© Mark Fisher 2005/2009

This is a sample caption