New South African play comes to Newcastle

Peter Lathan

The Suitcase, a new play from The Market Theatre of Johannesburg, comes to Newcastle after premièring at Hull Truck Theatre between 31 August and 9 September as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017’s Freedom season.

The production, which is a co-production between the South African company and Hull Truck, Northern Stage, Derby Theatre, The Duke’s Lancaster and Liverpool Playhouse, comes to Northern Stage from 14 to 16 September as part of Freedom City 2017—a city-wide programme marking the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr receiving an honorary degree from Newcastle University.

In 1950s South Africa, a young newly married couple leave their rural village and disapproving family for the city of Durban. Their goal is to return home rich and free. But, alienated in the city, unemployed and poor, Timi starts to lose his moral compass. Desperate to provide for his pregnant wife, he steals a suitcase left on a bus not knowing what might be inside; an act which brings frightening consequences, dramatic twists and unexpected turns.

Exploring issues of identity, migration and exile and celebrating the human spirit, it is directed by James Ngcobo, who became the first black artistic director of Market Theatre in 2013 and who adapted it from a short story by Es’kia Mphahlele, one of South Africa’s leading literary figures. It features live music composed and written by Grammy Award winner Hugh Masekela.

The decision to tour The Suitcase in the UK was inspired by Hull Truck’s visit to South Africa in 2015. Artistic Director Mark Babych and Jill Adamson (Director of Engagement and Learning) visited as part of a group of delegates to promote artistic exchange between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape of South Africa, funded by the Swallow Foundation.

“It’s been a long-held ambition to work with The Market Theatre Johannesburg,” said Babych. “As a young director, they opened my eyes to the power of theatre as they battled with the human tragedy of the apartheid years—inspired by the work of Athol Fugard, Barney Simon and the breath-taking power of performers like John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Percy Mtewa and Mbongeni Ngema.

“The Market Theatre still holds a special place in my heart. It’s a dream come true to welcome this wonderful company to our city as part of our 2017 programme, and to share the UK premiere of The Suitcase across five great cities.”

After Newcastle, The Suitcase visits Derby Theatre (20 - 23 September), The Duke’s Lancaster (27 - 29 September) and Liverpool Playhouse (4 - 8 October).