Sunday, 21 October 2018

Survivor’s tale reminds us that everything has a price

THE Jewish ghetto in the Hungarian town of Nagyvarad in 1944 sets the scene for actor-writer David Prince’s

THE Jewish ghetto in the Hungarian town of Nagyvarad in 1944 sets the scene for actor-writer David Prince’s one-man 45-minute play, Nine Suitcases, as directed by Lynn Hunter.

Adapted from Holocaust survivor Béla Zsolt’s book of the same name, the suitcases in question refer to the luggage in which his wife had so fiercely protected her belongings when travelling across Europe after the outbreak of war — an incongruity at a time in history when many were stripped of everything.

The sole character of this short drama, who, according to Prince, “is a thinly disguised version of Zsolt himself”, arrives on stage with drawn face, gaunt physique and pale complexion.

In all four corners of the space are four strategically placed chairs, while centre-stage sits a slatted wooden board propped up at an angle — eerily reminiscent of a railway siding ramp — and which we quickly learn will be his ghetto hospital bed.

From this aspect, much of the intriguing story of Zsolt’s canny yet fortuitous escape from the clutches of Nazi oppression is told.

A ward doctor, of whom Zsolt is initially sceptical, convinces him to accept an injection of typhus, ensuring that he will be held in quarantine for a period of no less than 21 days — during which time the ghetto at large will be cleared by military police.

It is, after all, imperative that a writer and journalist who might document the atrocities of the Nazi occupation of Hungary should have the greatest chance of evading certain demise at Auschwitz.

Recalling anecdotes from his bed — notably a wry account of two Jewish prostitutes securing their own freedom from the squalor of the ghetto — Prince masterfully morphs from one character to another, assuming the diverse accents and gaits of the individuals in Zsolt’s story.

He holds the audience throughout with a commanding stage presence and vocal articulacy.

The sardonic, sometimes irreverent, delivery of the story leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of the hardened person we are meeting.

Actor-musician Bethan Morgan, meanwhile, provides effective accompaniment in the form of violin folk arrangements, and the thud of a bodhrán to herald the advance of the perpetrators.

The challenge of adapting any autobiography or work of factual literature, however, is in the execution of a truly satisfying story arc.

It is those indescribable moments of tension and release in drama — particularly given this ripe material for such dynamics: the final lead up to, and aftermath of, an escape from the most evil of nemeses — which seemed to fall short.

That might seem a minor quibble in an otherwise arresting piece of work, but it’s a payoff which audiences have come to expect.

With yet another production of such quality and ambition added to the 2016 line-up, this time from Mercury Theatre Wales, Henley Fringe continues to establish itself as an arts festival worthy of serious attention.

Review: Martin Dew

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