Boy with a Suitcase: 4 Reasons to love the Play

I have been with it for three years now. Have travelled with it and lived with it in close, no, very close quarters. I have watched about 60 performances of it in Bangalore, Mannheim, Bombay, Madras, Pune, Stuttgart and Berlin. And I have been at perhaps 5 or 6 times as many rehearsals, meetings and discussions, so, yeah, I'm super-objective.

Berlin was simply the cherry that did it. The magic catalyst that moved the play from being a wonderful collaboration between two theatres in two countries (Ranga Shankara, Bangalore and Schnawwl, Mannheim) to the big league - a successful, traveling production that draws in large audiences. 

The team was performing at Augen Blick Mal! the famous festival of the best of German theatre for children and young adults. This takes place in gothic-mad-wonderful-tear-drenched Berlin at the Theatre an der Parkaue. There was theatre from all over Germany and about 6 invited international productions or collaborations. For instance, The Blue Boy from Brokentalkers, Dublin and A Papnő from Krétakör, Budapest. 

And there was Mike Kenny's Boy with a Suitcase.

I saw Roberto Frabetti, the godfather of theatre for toddlers and director of La Baraca Testoni Ragazzi at one show and Dr.Wolfgang Schneider, the president of ASSITEJ, was at the premiere. There were many who had come from great distances, dramaturgs and directors, who had heard of this play and didn't want to miss it. Our friend, Agnes Stache-Weisk, who had seen it in Mannheim drove all the way from Munich with her daughter Johanna, to catch a show. There were musicians and young people who came for the music. There were actors, students, friends from JES, Stuttgart who wanted to catch one more viewing, critics, academics. And without exception, they were blown away. The last show saw the cast getting 8 curtain calls and a heartfelt standing ovation. People would wait for the actors after the show and tell them they wept through the play. Others were overcome by the performances (Nikolai Jegorov plays 6 finely defined characters and everyone is so impressed by the quality and emotionalty of the Indian actors). All spoke of the music.

Nikolai Jegorov

I could understand pretty much all of this because by now the play has found its feet and become quite seamless. It flows beautifully and always pushes the right emotional buttons. But what is interesting is that I can still stand to watch it. No, seriously, anyone in the theatre will understand that however fond or invested you are, it gets insane watching performance after performance. But why do I still watch and enjoy this play?  Here are 4 good reasons:

1. The actors and musicians appear to care for each other, in that they actually listen to each other and perform so as to lift each other. BV Shrunga and David Benito Garcia, are as different as two human beings could be, the one satvic and vegetarian, the other hedonistic and deeply carnivorous. The one from Hanumanthnagar, Bangalore and the other of Spanish origin from Luxembourg. Yet when they perform, we've been asked so many times if they are brothers, so lovely is their synchronicity, keeping it spare, keeping it upbeat. When they run forward in fear and wonder, the Naz and the older storyteller Naz, to look at the guns, they have a certain step and angle to their necks that is full-on doppelgänger. The Naz that we see in Shrunga is as yet naive, underexposed, over emphatic. David's Naz has been through it all and is ironic and acerbic in his view of the world.

David Benito Garcia

BV Shrunga

2. It has moments in it that I find subtle and deeply touching. Bookending the play are two such emotional milestones. When the play starts, the adult storyteller Naz recollects home and wonders what it means, this word - HOME. In the same frame we see the young Naz asleep in his tiny home as his mother, played by MD Pallavi, covers him with a blanket and sings a Kannada lullaby - Haavi kandamma. One single moment and it conveys so much. A blanket and a lullaby: the multi-lingual quality of the protagonist's adventure, a mother's love, memories of security, nostalgia for a time that has passed. At the end of the play, Naz reaches London, the city all his dreams are built on. He comes to his sister's home, the sister who migrated years ago and whose postcard has been Naz's inspiration and lodestone. In a heart-stopping moment, his sister (also played by MD Pallavi) screams at him - "Why did you come....it's the same old world....people spit at you in the streets....there's work for everyone who will do the dirtiest jobs...it's like hell on earth" and we see Naz's dream world slip away from him. His world of Sinbad stories and fantastical escapes from evil antagonists. In that moment the play becomes hyper-real and you see in the sister and Naz what it really means to migrate: the loss of home. There is a third moment that I always wait for. Naz and his mother are in a refugee camp. A human-trafficker, played by Nikolai Jegorov, is present. The mother tries to negotiate with him to take them away from the camp. But she doesn't have enough money so he walks upstage, away from her. She harshly says to Naz "Wait here"and briskly releasing her scarf covered hair so it flows loose she walks to the trafficker. On the sarod, Konarak Reddy, plays Kaushik Bhairavi. We don't hear the exchange between the mother and the trafficker, but so much is implied.

MD Pallavi

3. What a work of art a good set is. Our set designer, Christian Thurm, went through many variations - with projections, without, an arc-like set, dark brown walls and then finally settled on a set that consisted of 2 parts:
(i) The upstage musician's area which consisted of an installation of metal stands and instruments. This was a complex arrangement with a large curved metal frame for the thunder sheet marking stage right and the guitar stands and an interesting horizontal stand for the sarod marking stage left. Centrestage was an array of drums including a cajon, darbuka, wind chimes and bows. In between were 2 rigged sewing machines, small instruments such as cymbals, rattles, a shruthi box, ocean drum, horns and a large basin of water 
(ii) The downstage actor's area which consisted of 4 canvas covered boxes about 6ft x 2.5ft and one small bench of the same fabric. That's it. 4 boxes, 1 bench, the actors and the stage. Un moment...one details should not be omitted. The boxes were covered with an off-white canvas as I mentioned before, but their corners were finished with beige leather, much like the corners of suitcases! I thought this was a marvel of deconstruction and wit.  
As I watch the play I always wonder at the mind of a set designer and particularly the mind of this one. The contrast between the density upstage and the vacuity downstage, the metal versus the wood. How did he come up with such a simple set that allows the actors to create stories on stage that stimulate the imagination of the sudience. In the course of the play the boxes are different homes, walls, the mountains, a boat, a lorry, shelter and eventually a tiny ghetto allotment. No tricks, everything in evidence. Spartan.

4. The music is always a live concert. This is not theatre music playing some kind of background-soundtrack-musak role. This is bold, rock-worthy, emotional and skilled. Embedded in the dramaturgy and in each the scene, always with the actors, lifting every moment, every character. Nothing remains static because of this. Another feature of the music is the sense of irony and subtext it imbues the narrative with. The play begins with Pallavi singing Padharo Mhare Desh against the other actors murmered chant of the word for 'home' in their native languages. So... Zuhause, Mane, Veed, Dom, Casa and so on. Padharo Mhare Desh is itself a Rajasthani song that rings a welcome. 'Welcome to this great land', goes the song. And the audience indeeds hears the invitation in Pallavi's singing.    
The first turning point, the arrival of guns in the village, is marked by loud rhythm guitar and cajon on the public address system. This jolts even the most somnolent child into feeling the danger of the situation. Cheap toys are used to make a soundscape in the refugee scene. A Kannada lullaby becomes the essence of the mother. Sarod, the descendant of the Afghani rubab, is used to communicate the desert feeling of the refugee camp as well as the loss of something great. Real sewing machines create a drone against which Konarak taps his guitar to create harmonics and Coordt plays polyrhythmically against a standard 4/4. Windchimes play Big Ben to signify Naz's arrival in London. Konarak's heart breaking harmonic minor alaap on Sindhu Bhairavi is the undertow of the conversation between the siblings that culminates in the sister's breakdown.

I was always against the last song, rhythmic mash-up of Padharo Mhare Desh and the Home chant. I felt it was a bit of a pastiche and added on simply to create a shiny-happy feeling after what is clearly a sombre moment. So I couldn't explain why my heart soared every time I heard Pallavi's voice begin singing after the last line, Naz's "And thank you for all the stories." And then I heard the director, Andrea Gronemeyer, once tell a discussion group that, for her, the most important moment in the play is when Kryzia, essayed with magic and charm by Simone Oswald, replies to Naz's bleak retort about having nothing - "Nothing? You've got stories."

Simone Oswald           Photo credit - Christian Kleiner

So that's why my heart soars. Because this play is eventually about that backpack that we carry, which contains something far more precious that smartphones or fast cars or whatevs. Our past. Our stories. That is why.

So, yeah, I figured who better than me to write a review :)

Andrea Gronemeyer


  1. Very nice to read (and imagine)! A song about homelessness that always touches me is Ladysmith Black Mambazo's 'homeless'. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFQ1TSzdpRA

  2. Thank you Kirtana for that wonderful text.
    Boy in Berlin was really wonderful and i enjoyed every
    tear. Credi