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The Suit

It seems to me that a good review consists of informed critical judgment, careful attention and appreciation for what is being attempted and a personal emotional response to the art and the artists on stage. When I sit in a theater just before the curtain goes up I try to forget everything in my day, and in my life, that has led up to that point, so that I can give myself over completely to the new experience of this play on this night. Sometimes, however, that’s not possible.

I have been so looking forward to Peter Brook’s production of “The Suit”. Brook is an acknowledged world master of the art of theater and, as in his 2001 production of “Hamlet” (also brought to Seattle) someone capable of making me understand a whole new level of theatrical art, how the most apparently simple and superficial actions can reveal layers of content only revealed through the careful attention and conscious insight of the audience. That is certainly the case with “The Suit”.

The story is of that most intimate relationship between a man and his wife, two people apparently happy and contented at the start of the play, but when the wife commits adultery and her husband finds out (returning home to find the other man fleeing and leaving his suit behind) he requires his wife to treat that abandoned suit as an honored guest in their house, a third party in their relationship. That presence delineates and defines everything else that happens in the play, in their relationship and in the fractured, painful world of apartheid South Africa in which they live.

I cannot emphasize enough the subtlety, delicacy and depth of this drama. The opening is as soft and tranquil as a lullaby. When the wife commits her betrayal the husband does not respond with loud, hostile anger, but with an almost immeasurably deep, internalized sense of hurt. His revenge seems to honor rather than castigate the adultery, but its consequence is to virtually destroy his wife's own sense of dignity and self-worth. There is nothing of the shouting of Albee, the violence of Mamet or the angry devastation of Sam Shepard. It is for us to measure the scale of consequences. The contours of the landscape in this drama are of such low relief that almost nothing gains elevation with the intensity of the conflict, but rather everything becomes deeper and more profound.

With the addition of lovely acoustic music to both accentuate and elaborate the themes of the play, the two principals, Ivanno Jeremiah as the husband Philomen and Nonhlanhla Kheswa as the wife, Matilda lead us on a brief journey through a world of social injustice and interpersonal cruelty, all the while maintaining a level of intimacy that only strengthens the human failings of these individuals by every measure. Kheswa's singing is beautiful and accomplished and only makes her all the more vulnerable. Jeremiah's dignity is only lost through the consequences of his own actions, not as a result of hers.

Arthur Astier on guitar, Mark Christine on piano and Mark Kavuma on trumpet are very effective in adding a melodic sub-text to the story and Jordan Barbour portrays a number of other characters to fill out the world in which they live. That world is no more nor less complex than the world of their marriage, the apparent simplicity accentuated by the minimalist staging and the control of the acting technique. Still, for all the simplicity and constraint of the story, one of Brook’s major achievements is in making this very private, very intimate story relate to a much larger world.

Now a bit of full disclosure about that person in the audience. I was in the theater at the end of a long and difficult day of travel, starting to come down with a nasty cold, tired, foggy, certainly not at my critical best. For that reason I really don’t think I’m aware of all that was taking place on that stage, and I'm probably not the best judge of all that this great artist was attempting. I liked and admired this production of “The Suit” and was fully aware that there was much more depth and artistic intention on display than I was understanding or appreciating. I would suggest Omar Willey’s wonderful piece on Brook and this production on the Seattle Star, at this link.

For this critic, “The Suit” felt like a lost opportunity for me to really engage with the work of one of the most important and most celebrated theater artists in the world. I’m going back to bed, but I strongly suggest that if you care about theater you go to Seattle Rep while this first-rate production is in town.