“The Boy With A Suitcase” is about stark reality, not a happily-ever-after ending

‘Once upon a time in a land far far away, there lived a little boy.' It's a strangely reassuring line. Despite ogres, witches and menacing forests, fairytales have the ability to transport people to a better place. Perhaps it's the promise of a happy ending. The ‘happily ever after' lurking just around the corner. Modern fairytales are far less predictable. After all, they occur in a far less predictable world.

Universal issue

This is the setting for ‘The Boy With A Suitcase,' recently staged at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubbarao Concert Hall. The play, currently touring India within the framework of ‘Germany and India 2011 - 2012: Infinite Opportunities,' was written by Mike Kenny and directed by Andrea Gronemeyer. A co-production between Ranga Shankara and Schnawwl Theatre Mannheim (under the Wanderlust project of the German government) it talks of the universal issue of displacement. Like all classic fairytales, there's adventure. Unlike the classics, it's also infused with sharp, disturbing doses of reality.

‘The Boy With A Suitcase' is the story of child refugees, forced to flee their homes and leave their parents. About their gutting losses and gruelling journeys. About how they risk it all for that apocryphal ‘treasure', only to realise it's often worthless. Author Mike Kenny says he wants audiences to be taken on a “journey which is universal”. Hence, although this tale is set in a mythical country, replete with mountains, forests and deserts, it's based on contemporary realities.

Dark tales

A handout given at the theatre states that in 2010 the United Nations interviewed 42 refugee children and published a report on their experiences. They talk of escapes via the mountains, of crossing borders in cramped trucks with unscrupulous smugglers, of tackling rough seas in unstable dinghies. If they're caught, they're sent home, from where they attempt the journey all over again.

These stories are important. But they're also dark and depressing, not the best combination when it comes to drawing audiences. Especially in a production that's aimed at children. ‘The Boy With A Suitcase' is ingeniously moulded into a fairytale format, using reassuringly familiar tools, to deliver the essence of the tale without plunging into a maelstrom of wailing and bathos. Its small cast doubles up, playing different roles and providing the play's haunting sound track. Christian Thurm's minimalist, multi-functional sets are designed to be smoothly moved around by the cast to change scenes seamlessly. And the audience is hand-held though the story by its charismatic narrator, David Benito Garcia.

Naz (B.V. Shrunga), the little boy, who the story pivots around, is forced to leave his little home in the mountains when they're engulfed by war. He ends up in an infuriatingly static refugee camp, desperate to return to a home that doesn't exist any more. His parents finally pay a smuggler to get him across the border. En route he meets feisty Krysia (Lea Whitcher).

Humour, energy and music

Although the story is gut-wrenching, it's also enchanting thanks to a crafty blend of humour, energy and music (percussion by Coordt Linke and guitars by Konark Reddy). Stories and songs collide vividly, as Naz uses his mother's tales (aided by M.D. Pallavi's haunting vocals) to cheer up Krysia though the most gruelling, and frightening, parts of their journey.

The story recalls a collage of well-loved tales. Hansel and Gretel running though the forest. Sinbad the Sailor tackling the high seas. Treasure Island, with its promised chest of gold at the end of the journey. Action is highly stylised, in the manner of a graphic novel, with crafty freeze frames and coloured lights for maximum impact. All this allows it to skip glibly — perhaps too glibly — over the children's worst experiences. Even spending two years in a sweatshop, being endlessly exploited by a harsh, amoral slave-driver played powerfully by Nikolai Jegorow.

When they run away from home, Naz's mother tells him to ‘never look back' channelling the Biblical story of Lot's wife, who — while fleeing Sodom's destruction — looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Despite being en route to ‘the other side of the world', London, the promised land of ‘milk and honey', Naz can't help but look back, constantly. As the play concludes, we understand why.

Sinbad and his ilk may have had the privilege of a ‘happily ever after'. But in real life, there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The land of milk and honey doesn't exist.

And the other side of the world is just the same.

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012