The Journey of The Suitcase

Jane Coyle on how an inconspicuous Jewish Museum artefact inspired her award-winning play, ahead of a special Holocaust Memorial performance at Belfast City Hall

It all began in the Jewish Museum in Vienna in September 2014. The first exhibit in its permanent collection is no precious artwork but a shabby leather suitcase on which is written the name and address of a certain Frieda Jakobowitz from Berlin.

I was instantly intrigued as to why this little case belonging to a woman from Germany should have pride of place in the Austrian capital. It turned out that it had surfaced in a house in Vienna after the death of an elderly man called Arthur Stoehr, who had used it to carry home his few belongings from Terezin concentration camp.

So there they were, Frieda and Arthur, two strangers from different countries, forever connected by a humble, everyday object unearthed in unimaginably horrible circumstances. There’s surely a play in this, I thought.

As a long-established arts commentator and performing arts critic, I’ve been writing about other people’s plays for many years. So you’d think I’d know better. I had, in fact, set out along this perilous path a year previously, when I wrote my first play The Lantern Man, set in Dublin in 1915/16 and inspired by the discovery of a collection of glass lantern slides in the attic of a Belfast church. It has been presented as a rehearsed reading on a number of occasions and the reactions of those who saw it encouraged me to press on and write another. 

Frieda Jakobowitz's suitcase, its travels, the events it had witnessed, the hands that had touched it, haunted me, day and night. In place of Frieda and Arthur, I started to imagine a link between two fictional strangers, Austrian Galina and German Leo, placing them at the heart of an evolving family drama set in present day Belfast.

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Seán O’Hare as Leo Edelmann, Rosie Barry as Galina Moriarty and Hannah Coyle as Galina Stein

Gradually, the scenario started to take shape in my head. Eventually, to give myself a night’s sleep, I began to write it down. The starting point is the discovery of an old suitcase in the home of Leo Edelmann, a Holocaust survivor and native of Berlin, whose daughter Sofie and granddaughter Galina are clearing out the property shortly after his death.

On the case is written an unfamiliar name, Galina Stein, at an address in Vienna. How did it find its way to their home in Belfast? Who is Galina Stein? Why does Leo’s granddaughter have the same name? Before long I began to sense a real sympathy with these characters, imbuing their back stories with my own experiences of family life and friendship.

I had lost my own father the year previously and had had the emotional turmoil of emptying a childhood home and uncovering unknown snippets of personal history. Similarly, my daughter had lost a much-loved grandfather, so the triangular relationship between Leo, Galina and Sofie felt real and alive. 

Personally and professionally, I have had a lifelong connection to dance and enjoyed a treasured friendship with the dancer Helen Lewis, who, after surviving Auschwitz, had settled in Belfast and raised a family. In shaping the character and background of Galina Stein growing up in 1930s Vienna, she came to me as a young girl whose dream was to become a dancer. And that decision set the tone for the play.

More than anything, in spite of its context, I wanted it to be colourful and affirmative, to ring out with music, to shine shafts of light into the darkness.

When the script was in a raw, half-finished state, I showed it to Katy Radford, a member of Belfast's Jewish community and someone whom I could trust to keep me right on terminology and language. She asked if I’d be willing to organise a rehearsed reading for Holocaust Memorial Day - just three weeks away!

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Hannah Coyle as Galina Stein

I’m forever indebted to her faith in the script and to four splendid actors, Megan Armitage, Hannah Coyle, Julie Kinsella and Seán O’Hare, who, with only the briefest preparation period, brought my words to life and made the play feel like a realisable proposition.

A few months later, a conversation with Belfast Festival director Richard Wakely ended with him inviting me to premiere the play at the new-look Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival in October. Now things were getting really scary.

With tremendous generosity, the members and executive council of the Jewish community offered us the perfect venue - the Belfast Synagogue. I had written the play with the expressed intention of it being performed, not necessarily in a conventional theatre space, but anywhere that could provide three bright pools of light in which the interlocking stories could be told. Little did I think we would find anywhere quite so appropriate and which would attract such a level of public interest.

With the venue confirmed, Katy and her colleagues at the Institute for Conflict Research started hatching plans for theatre workshops involving community groups of women and people who are victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict, as well as preparing to facilitate post-performance discussions.

Now, all that remained was the crucial task of turning the play into a production. I knew from the onset who my first choice of director would be. I have long admired the meticulous work of Eilise McNicholas, whose daring, highly visualised imagination has been a keystone of the output of Chatterbox Productions, the company she and producer Ciara McCafferty formed after graduating from Queen’s University.

We joined forces in a co-production between Chatterbox and Spring Lane - the company set up by myself and the broadcaster and producer Padraig Coyle - with the Institute for Conflict Research and the synagogue’s Jews Schmooze programme as our associates.

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Rosie Barry as Galina Moriarty and Mary Moulds as Sofie Moriarty

While Ciara set about the challenge of raising the necessary funds to finance the project - and huge thanks are due here to Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council - Eilise and I concentrated on refining the script and the musical references that I had written in.

A strong production team included sound designer Rachel Cullen, whose atmospheric soundscape was praised by critics and audiences alike, choreographer Mags Byrne, who worked on Galina’s dance sequences, and stage manager Megan Magill, who sourced the costumes and props necessary to achieve Elise’s visual concept.

Finally there was the cast, a perfectly matched quartet of multi-talented performers - Rosie Barry, Hannah Coyle, Mary Moulds and Seán O’Hare. How thrilling it was to see the rare combination of an all-female production team working together with three actresses in strong female roles. And let's not forget that Mr. O’Hare was pretty damned good, too!

When the lights went up on the first dress rehearsal, I was hit by a visceral rush which will live with me always. The following days flashed by in a blur, very far removed from my usual Belfast Festival experience. The run was a sell-out and I still have not quite taken in the fact that The Suitcase was declared the winner of the Belfast Telegraph Audience Award, as the result of a public vote.

Now we have been honoured by an invitation from Belfast City Council to restage the play on January 25 and present it in the City Hall to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day 2016. Two days later on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day itself, Seán will perform an extract at the regional event in the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, which is being supported by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

I dare to speculate that this may be just the beginning of a happier journey for the little suitcase. Many people tried and failed to see it at the Belfast Festival, so we are hopeful of making it available again to a wider audience in Northern Ireland and beyond. Who knows, maybe one day it might even travel to Vienna. My dearest wish would be to take The Suitcase home.

The Suitcase performs at Belfast City Hall on Monday, January 25 at 7pm. Tickets have now been fully allocated. Images by Kealan McCambridge.