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Vicissitudes of Chance and Circumstance

Anton Krueger reviews The Suitcase

The Suitcase
Now showing at the Market Theatre until 20 August.

One of the difficulties of adapting a literary text for the stage lies in finding ways of creating action out of narrative. This can be particularly difficult when you’re working with a writer like Es’kia Mphahlele, whose personal style develops such a strong sense of interiority; whose work permits the reader intimate glimpses into the internal world of his protagonists. The trick lies in managing to convey the plot without simply retelling the story.

In James Ngcobo’s adaptation, Ngcobo has relied on numerous narrators who provide a great deal of description in both the third and the first person. But the writing is so rich and the descriptions so vivid that these monologues weave into and complement the action, instead of over-burdening it with unnecessary elaboration.

It’s a story which is slow to unwind as it weaves together a tapestry of interrelated tales. One of the storytellers tells us at the start of the show that “one thing you hold onto is your story: that’s who you are”, and this is a play about many small stories which flow into the central tale, like tributaries feeding a river which quietly rises, as it gathers momentum until it eventually tumbles over into its tragic climax.

Timi (Siyabonga Twala) is a naive “dreamer from the village” who believes that he will be able to overcome his poverty by bringing his pregnant wife to the city and building a new life for the two of them there. However, the daily frustration of not finding work makes him increasingly despondent, and he begins to despair of ever changing his fortunes. He then takes a single chance which changes his life.

What is striking about Ngcobo’s production is the way in which he has managed to provide a bridge between interior and exterior worlds with his set. An urban room is set on a small stage at the centre of the overall design. Inside the house is a universe created by two people in love. Outside their room lies the city, populated by thieves, friends, drunks and policemen. There are beautiful, tender moments between Timi and Namhla (Nqobile Sepamla) when they are alone in their private space, nurturing their love for each other. But Timi wants to belong to the outside, he wants to belong to the city, and his inability to find work makes him turn more and more to his inner world. As in The Suit, it is ultimately the protagonist’s devotion to his wife which contributes to his eventual downfall.

The show is buttressed by a happy combination of well-scripted characterisation and sturdy performances throughout. Mncedisi Shabangu and John Lata are brilliant in a host of disparate roles, and Nqobile Sepamla’s Afrikaans is impeccable. But it’s Siyabonga Twala’s gradual transformation from a shy, reclusive character into an angry, bitter man which really holds the piece together.

For James Ngcobo, already well known as a film and stage actor, this is his first attempt at directing. The Suitcase has already won the New Director award for this year’s Fleur du Cap and Ncgobo has clearly learnt much from the many great directors he’s worked with. His production manages to utilise African traditions without losing the thread of a character-driven story. Where a show like Born Thru the Nose makes too much, perhaps, of attempting to restore a purist Africanist tradition, The Suitcase is less optimistic in its outlook and portrays, rather, the personal suffering of a man caught in a relentless society.

By focusing on a particular trajectory in the inner life of one man, the play manages to avoid the pitfalls of trying to comment on an entire “African tradition” directly. It’s a warm, rich production – quiet and tender – which draws on a range of theatrical traditions in relating a subtle story about the vicissitudes of chance and circumstance.

The Suitcase is on at the Market Theatre until 20 August.

(This review was first published by Cue, Friday 7 July 2006. Used with permission.)

LitNet: 09 August 2006

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