We were privileged last night to be able to watch a piece of extraordinary theatre at Derby thanks to an alliance between five Northern venues with a kindred passion for presenting challenging and entertaining work to their audiences.
The international tour of The Market Theatre, Johannesburg’s, The Suitcase fittingly opened in Hull – the UK’s City of Culture 2017, since then it has been to the Northern Stage in Newcastle and after Derby it will be in Lancaster and then Liverpool.
Set in 1950s apartheid South Africa The Suitcase tells the story of a young couple, Timi (Siyabonga Caswell Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni), who leave their village for the city with few possessions and a dream of a better life. But racial discrimination stacks the odds against them.
Timi is trying and failing to find a job and one day in desperation he steals a suitcase he finds left on a bus without knowing what is inside. It is a move that brings horrifying consequences.
The Market Theatre’s artistic director Sibongeleni James Ngcobo has kept the set simple with just one sparsely furnished room elevated on a platform surrounded by the hostile city outside depicted by a bench and dustbin.
Two storytellers Molatlhegi Desmond Dube and Nhlanhla John Lata provide the narration and an astounding live vocal trio and guitarist perform gutsy jazz music with a gospel-feel that brings the whole story alive.
The wonderful period-style music was composed by Hugh Masekela, the singers were Gugulethu Shezi, Penelope Nomfundo Sambo and Nokukhanya Gugulethu Dlamini and guitarist Bhekisisa Sifiso Makhosonke Khoza.
It is not unusual to see powerful thought provoking theatre at Derby but it is definitely a rare treat to see an international tour of this calibre with such a profound story that can resonate with the people of the city.
If this is what collaboration between theatres and some help from Arts Council England Lottery funding brings then long may it continue.
The play can be seen at Derby Theatre until Saturday. For tickets go to http://www.derbytheatre.co.uk