Boy With A Suitcase

Direction : Andrea Gronemeyer
Writer : Mike Kenny
Cast : BV Shrunga, Coordt Linke, Konarak Reddy, MD Pallavi, Nikolai Jegorow, Simone Oswald


Vikram Phukan


BOY WITH A SUITCASE, an Indo-German collaboration between Ranga Shankara in Bangalore and Schnawwl National Theatre in Mannheim, is a compelling saga of displacement and hope, culled out of the real-life accounts of children forced out of their strife-ridden homelands (for instance, Afghanistan) to seek better futures in Europe, often undertaking perilous journeys to get there. Written by Mike Kenny, and directed by Andrea Gronemeyer, it is the story of Naz, a young boy packed off to London by his parents. His trans-continental odyssey allows for an episodic tale that has perhaps been designed using what may be termed a standard-issue blueprint for stories of this ilk, but the treatment is still decidedly fresh and the inventive story-telling carries us through an on-stage adventure that never flags.


Naz's journey is given a characteristic lilt by conflating his real-life excursions with the seven voyages of Sinbad, the fictional sailor from the Arabian Nights. These are bedtime stories his mother had told him in happier times, and the echoes keep him warm and protected as he travels unremittingly across uncivilized terrain, treacherous cities and an uncompromising sea, by foot or bus or fishing trawler, before reaching the promised land-London, not quite painted as a haven for immigrants.

There is a panoramic sweep to the play delivered by an in-form multicultural cast who ensure that the tale retains a distinct international flavor. This is underlined by the casting of Naz-played by two actors, from India and Germany. Shrunga BV performs the younger Naz with the right mix of insouciance and vulnerability, and David Benito Juarez as his older avatar, is the de facto narrator whose memories are brought alive by the acting ensemble on stage. The cast add much punch to the proceedings with concise performances, and in a remarkably display of multifacetedness, double up as impromptu musicians when not filling in their characters.

En route Naz befriends a young girl, Krysia (a self-assured and amusing turn by Lea Whitcher), who could be escaping from a former Russian state herself. Their blow-hot blow-cold banter ushers in some color and brightness. Krysia's knowing sense of humour is cynical but warm-hearted, and as the children soldier on, backpacks in place, she anchors Naz with her optimism. The banter keeps it light, never departing even in the most dire moments, when they are paraded out of a coach at gunpoint, or running from wolves down a moutain.

The real-life grit is suggested in the veiled wryness of the lines and in those tell-tale moments from which even younger audiences can glean the the darker truths that lurch behind the cheery-faced facade. When Krysia turns up dressed as a tart, it's hinted that she may have been sold to prostitution, even if she's held on to her spirit. When Naz's mother (MD Pallavi, carrying herself with dignity) unfurls her hair when she enters the private chamber of a body-smuggler, it is implied she may have slept with him in order to buy her son passage to London. There is unrelenting unfriendliness that Naz encounters. The slimy strangers are the modern equivalent of ogres in fairy tales, or minotaurs in Greek legends, or pimps in old Dickensian tales.

The cast provides the aural soundscape that adds texture to the play, working with a selection of musical paraphernalia assembled at the back of the stage. The enuui of the refugee camp is evoked strikingly by actors ambling along, their unaffacted languor punctuated with the lazy strumming of a banjo or a singing bowl being struck. Elsewhere, sheets of tin-foil create the rumblings of thunder in a flash of stage-lit lightning, as the actors draw out the elements of nature via low whistling and blowing.

A dank sweat-shop in which Naz and Krysia find themselves, is conjured up by the whirring of imagined sewing machines, with the children bent over their work-stations in constant motion, relentlessly feeding sweatshirts to the needle, while working the foot pedal. It is a burst of gooseflesh inducing choreography. The sweatshirts are emblazoned, somewhat ironically, 'No man is an island'. In this tale, the geography is never explicitly specified but there are several clues that give us a sense of the pilgrims' progress and each port of call allows us to connect the dots and piece together the entitre journey.

As Naz completes his journey, much of what he owned is lost-his personal belongings scattered, his precious postcards made indistinct. There is still an adolescent scruffiness to the older Naz, and his ill-fitting clothes don't quite reflect the prosperity that would have been his wont had London actually been the land of unmitigated opportunities. Mr Benito Garcia is nonetheless a characterful presence. The journey was not entirely in vain. It was an uncommon experience that gives him an uncommon stature, and the actor embodies this well.

The migration of asylum-seekers to Great Britain is as much a function of its welfare policies as it is about freedoms guaranteed. As we leave Naz, he seems consigned to be just another second-class citizen in his chosen land, but his has been a concrete journey-a journey in which an irrevocable measure of self-worth has been earned. The narrative, even with its stock co-incidences and somewhat predictable denouement, makes these true-to-life stories accessible to younger audiences. By feeding them the same crests and troughs of drama that traditional fairy tales harness, Mr Kenny has held on the cadences that keep them particularly relevant to the difficult times we live in.

*Vikram Phukan runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions-

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