Friday, October 23, 2015

The Suitcase (Spring Lane/Chatterbox): keeping secrets, sharing memories, valuing people #BelFest

It began when theatre critic and playwright Jane Coyle spotted a suitcase in a Vienna museum with an address painted onto it. The few personal belongings of an Austrian Jew would have been carried inside it to a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia. And so Jane’s imagination and storytelling began. Who might that have been? How was the suitcase recovered? Could it have been found in Belfast?

Staged in Belfast Synagogue on the Somerton Road by Spring Lane and Chatterbox Productions, The Suitcase rotates between three areas of the set and three timelines. Sophie Moriarty (played by Mary Moulds) and Galina Moriarty (Rosie Barry) are a mother and daughter clearing out grandfather Leo’s house. An unfamiliar ragdoll and a suitcase are uncovered. Through letters and diaries they are drawn into a journey of family discovery about secrets and stories that had been kept from them over decades.

Seán O’Hare is cast as Leo Edelmann and remains seated at one side of the stage in his arm chair for the duration of the performance. While he settled to live in Belfast and met his wife there, his childhood was spent in Berlin. With failing health he is tying up some of his life’s loose ends and writing to the family of Galina Stein in Vienna. It may be his last opportunity to tell them what “he kept all bottled up inside” about “my beloved Galina”, the talented dancer he met during the Second World War.

Finally Galina Stein (Hannah Coyle) occupies the raised rear section of the set. A seamstress and a dancer, she recalls the build-up of anti-Semitism in Vienna and her experience of being forcefully transited out of the city with her mother.

The audience are left dangling for around two-thirds of the play waiting to discover the connection that links Leo and Galina. And when the moment of revelation comes it is very quickly followed by the jeopardy that cuts the friendship short. While the long wait left me a little impatient, Eilise McNicholas packed the ending full of lasting emotion.

The play has significantly matured and developed since its first rehearsed reading back in January in the Red Barn Gallery as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. The four-handed play split between three sectors necessitates a lot of monologues, the words are often broken up by Rosie Barry’s violin playing (often tying in with sound designer Rachel Cullen’s beautifully textured stereo soundscape). Historical facts are deftly scattered throughout the script, leaving The Suitcase more drama than historical documentary. There’s no attempt to introduce German or Austrian accents.

The themes of The Suitcase are very contemporary. The plight and treatment of refugees is still topical, as is the manner in which a city like Belfast welcomes them into our community and celebrates their contribution. There are echoes of the Disappeared.

Multi-layered identities are also explored, with second generation Northern Irish Galina’s strong feeling of Jewishness owed to her close bond and shared love of music with her grandfather, even though her own mother had abandoned many of the religious traditions and practices.

By not speaking of his wartime experiences, Leo felt that he “failed in [his] duty to bear witness” to his family. Sophie too had picked up some stories about her parents but hadn’t thought to pass them onto her daughter Galina.

Memory and the pursuit of truth is never far away from the political agendas as those most heavily involved in The Troubles grow old and the opportunity to hear their story diminish. Our local baggage may not have addresses etched onto them, but the memories and actions are often kept secret from wider family, never mind the public at large.

Jane’s play opens up local issues, reminding us that the lessons of World War Two have not been fully learnt. The Suitcase sold out its three night run at Belfast Festival (12-14 October). Worth catching when it is next staged.

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