Pictures: Brett Rubin
Diane de Beer
Sitting in the rehearsal room at Joburg’s Market Theatre complex where the cast of the latest revision of The Suitcase is busy rehearsing, it is easy to see why this is such an impactful piece of writing.
Add to that the evocative music (arranged by Bheki Khoza) that James Ngcobo has incorporated into the fabric of the story, it catches your heart from the start.
This was the play that first brought actor James Ngcobo’s directorial skills to everyone’s attention.
Adapted from Es’kia Mphahlele’ s short story by Ngcobo, it is set in the 1950s in Sophiatown (here it has been moved to Durban). The Suitcase is a haunting love story of a couple who try to pursue their dreams with nothing more than each other yet they believe that will carry them through. Set in the bitter apartheid years, it is the tale of countless couples who try to make a simple living in extraordinarily harsh times. Everywhere they turned, doors closed without even a glimmer of hope except perhaps that chance of a lifetime which might change their lives.
It is also a universal and timeless story which can be set anywhere, at any time.
Having watched it in all its reincarnations, I thought I would be immune to the sadness that gently yet determinedly envelops you but, as Ngcobo always points out, it is a love story before anything else, and it has a devastating yet mesmerising effect.
The pressures of the city, unemployment and poverty strip away the husband`s self-esteem and he starts to lose his moral compass. He is so desperate to provide for his pregnant wife that he steals a suitcase left on a bus.
This third reincarnation has come about because of a 5-week tour of Northern England (see schedules below). For the artistic director of The Market who was invited to bring this piece, it is about honouring this time by reinterpreting The Suitcase and in that way, to keep shining those classics for a contemporary world.
If one sometimes wonders why a stage production works, The Suitcase is ample proof that it helps when all the elements come together so emphatically.
From the poetic script which remains true to the original text and captures the haunting powers of a short story to an ensemble cast that work so sweetly together like a tightly knit family.
The cast includes original members Siyabonga Thwala as the husband Timi and John Lata, while Desmond Dube as the storyteller and other characaters and Masasa Mbangeni as the wife Namhla, joins the play.
Solo guitarist Bheki Khosa accompanies three singers – Nomfundo Dlamini-Sambo, Gugu Shezi and Nokukhanya Dlamini.
The way it is told and performed is all about this country. It’s in the music, the gestures, the sound effects, the movement and the classic storytelling that pulls you right into the eye of the storm as the characters emerge painfully from their dreams.
It’s a beautiful piece of theatre to travel and represent this country as it incorporates so much of our own storytelling yet it is a universal story and with a cast and performers that just in rehearsals (and not quite on their game yet) had me enthralled. I am so proud that this team will be representing us in the world.
Ngcobo is intent on furthering The Market brand and understands the benefits of reaching out and forming international partnerships, to exchange the riches particular to the different countries.
For him it has always been about outside exposure, introducing and involving the young to also learn from these international adventures and to return to plough back. He has wanted to re-position the brand and has worked hard to be brave and to try new content for their space. “Post 94 we started experiencing a new and changing country which meant that as curators we had to exhibit the change in how we programme and that is exactly what we have done, to cast our net wide and not only be a theatre that is driven by a political narrative but to find a way that sees us operating in a continental and universal space,” he says.
In a previous review I had remarked that The Suitcase is pure theatre. “Hopefully it tours both nationally and internationally.”
And that blissfully (with a previous tour to Scandanavia) has come to pass.
Here are the British schedules which will be followed by a home run at The Market from 20 October to 26 November:
Hull: Friday 1 September – Saturday 9 September at Hull Truck; Newcastle: Tuesday 12 September – Saturday 16 September at Northern Stage; Derby : Tuesday 19 September –Saturday 23 September at Derby Theatre; Lancaster: Tuesday 26 September – Saturday 30 September at Lancaster Dukes; Liverpool: Tuesday 03 October – Saturday 07 October at Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.