Nine Suitcases by Béla Zsolt;
translated by Ladislaus Löb
Adapted for the stage and performed by David Prince
Original music composed and performed by Bethan Morgan
Directed by Lynn Hunter
Costume supplied by Jess Keeler
Nine Suitcases started off as a production for Welsh Fargo’s On the Edge series, performed at Chapter, Cardiff and at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, in March 2011. That same year we had the opportunity of taking Nine Suitcases to the Edinburgh Fringe, where the production received two 5-star reviews; and, crucially, was seen by ACW staff, who advised us to apply for project funding. Our application was successful, enabling the company to tour small-scale theatre venues across Wales (2011/12); and to take the production to the Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden and to the New North London Synagogue. The success of this tour cemented commitment within Mercury Theatre Wales, leading to its becoming a permanently established company.
Béla Zsolt was an anti-establishment Hungarian-Jewish author and journalist. Labelled ‘decadent’ by his enemies, his output included poetry, countless articles and seven novels. The protagonist in Nine Suitcases is a thinly disguised version of Zsolt himself. He presents us with a minimally fictionalised account of his own experience as a Hungarian Jew suffering Nazi and Hungarian Fascist persecution during WWII. Incarcerated in a Jewish ghetto in 1944, he became involved in an audacious but unlikely plan to escape deportation to Auschwitz …
“Actor David Prince and musician Bethan Morgan carry the action superbly … Prince’s physical performance encompasses Zsolt’s conflicted humanity, shifting voices and movement to portray the various characters … Morgan’s music impressively reinforces the tone and experiences. A compelling close-up on the Holocaust, this play is equally quest and character study, with both sides wonderfully produced.”
(ThreeWeeks: Katie Cunningham)
“There is never any self-indulgence … Prince’s character accepts his fate without the least complaint … no plucking of heart-strings here … an intensely powerful production.”
(Edfringereview: Helen Catt)
“A fantastically crafted exploration of the darkest moments of human history”.
(Edfringereview: David Knowles)
“The performance of Nine Suitcases was remarkable for its simple and moving staging, its stirring music and its marvellous acting …but what was most striking of all was the depth of empathy for the suffering of another people …”
(Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, New North London Synagogue)
“(David Prince) was able to create an entire world, astonishing for such a prolonged period and took the whole audience with him on the journey.”
(Helen Wilkins, English lecturer, Coleg Glan Hafren – now Cardiff & Vale College)
Friday 10th June 7.30pm – Penarth Pier Pavilion, Penarth
Wednesday 22nd June 7.30pm – The Vault, No Sign Bar, Wind St., Swansea
Saturday 2nd July 7pm – The Old School Hall, St.Dogmael’s, Pembrokeshire
Friday 22nd & Saturday 23rd July 7pm – The Town Hall Chambers, Henley Fringe Festival
9 SUITCASES REVIEWS
Sunday August 28th, 2011
ED2011 Theatre Review: Nine Suitcases (Mercury Theatre)
In this one man play, based on the Holocaust experiences of writer Béla Zsolt, our narrator shares his story of escape from a ghetto hospital to Budapest. The two performers – actor David Prince and musician Bethan Morgan – carry the action superbly. Jumping between drama and tragedy, Prince’s physical performance encompasses Zsolt’s conflicted humanity and story, shifting voices and movement to portray the various characters encountered on his way. Morgan’s music impressively reinforces the tone and experiences, and the subtle staging consists of five pieces of furniture which demarcate each part of the journey, with the narrator moving between them. A compelling close up on the Holocaust, this play is equally quest and character study, with each side wonderfully produced.
tw rating 5/5
Review by Helen Catt
There is only ever one man on-stage in Nine Suitcases, but with David Prince’s gift for storytelling, it is not always easy to remember this. The stage seems to be filled with the shades of the characters he talks about, from the pretty young nurse to the train conductor. He tells them using a number of different accents. At first this felt a little odd – I was expecting the Nazi commandant to have a German accent, if any. But if there are as many German accents as there are English ones, then to lose the affects of the different accents by playing them all in a generic German one, would have lost some of the texture of the piece.
“An honest and authentic account.”
The music was composed and performed by Bethan Morgan, whose bleak violin solos and sharp military tattoos complimented the piece perfectly. The stage was bare apart from a chair in each of the four corners and a mattress in the middle – but again, with Prince’s talent for storytelling, these chairs became a room in Budapest, a Quarantine Hospital and the ghettos of Hungary.
The vignettes told by Prince were graphic and desolate, capturing the sense of the Jews waiting for the Holocaust to happen to them. He told tales of hope even in desperation, and salvation from the most unexpected sources. The overwhelming impression was of a people entirely at the mercy of fate. There is never any self-indulgence about the play. Prince’s character, a thinly disguised Béla Zsolt, accepts his fate without the least complaint – indeed, he points out the hypocrisy of complaining after he didn’t stand up for crimes committed against other races.
When I saw Nine Suitcases, the audience was undeservedly sparse. It’s difficult to believe that a show of this calibre has remained undiscovered for the whole of the Fringe season. It is an intensely powerful production that held utterly in thrall what little audience it had. Perhaps it’s lack of a larger audience came from the venue’s location, which was a little way away from the masses of the Royal Mile. Or perhaps it was the intense subject matter – but this shouldn’t have intimidated people. There was no plucking of heartstrings here, it was simply a tale of one man’s journey through all of the petty insults and theft of dignity that came from those nightmarish times. An honest and authentic account, it is one that is well worth watching.
Review by David Knowles
This adaptation of Bela Zsolt’s memoirs is a fascinating and moving account of one man’s experiences of the holocaust. The protagonist (the blurb tells us) is a ‘thinly disguised version of Bela Zsolt himself’. The team behind the show had thus set themselves a challenge; to convincingly portray and explore an autobiographical account of the holocaust on stage. This is perhaps the most difficult and trying modern theatrical test.
“A fantastically crafted exploration of the darkest moments of human history” David Prince is a master story teller. Using just his voice and a few well chosen actions he draws us into a nightmarish world of Jews, Ghettos and the lengths human beings will go to escape death. Throughout the piece Prince is utterly compelling to watch. The decision by the director to make all the different voices Prince performed as accents of the United Kingdom rather than of Eastern Europe and Germany was also inspired. Simply put, no-one in the audience would have a clue what the difference between a southern Hungarian accent and a northern one is, so transplanting the characters and making them more familiar and thus relevant really did work.
Prince (with the aid of some lovely low key music provided by the multi-talented Bethan Morgan) created such believable scenarios that, in my exhausted state, I actually (out of the corner of my peripheral vision) started to see some of the characters Prince described, creeping and slinking in the background. I would like to believe this is testament to Prince’s ability and skill than my own tiredness.
The stage was simple and well-designed with every corner inhabited by a different object that would aid Prince in one stage of his story. The centre was covered with a dirty mattress on which the dishevelled and gaunt Prince started the piece (in a bombed out hospital). This simple set was used well by Prince and I do believe that if this show was on in another venue it would draw sell out crowds every night. It deserved to be experienced by a far greater number of people than it (depressingly did). All in all, then, Nine Suitcases is a fantastically crafted exploration of the darkest moments of human history.
Images: Claire Cousins