WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.
It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.
In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.
Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.
Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.
Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.
Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.
- The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.