Legendary director Peter Brook’s The Suit confronts adultery and Apartheid with elegant simplicity. Set in Apartheid-era South Africa, the one-act play centers on the marital discord between doting husband Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) and his wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). While things initially seem cheery, Philomen soon hears rumors of Matalida’s infidelity. When he rushes home, he catches her and the philanderer in the act. The other man bolts and leaves his suit behind. As retribution, Philomen devises a form of torturous psychological punishment; forcing Matilda to treat the suit like an esteemed guest of the household. She must care for the suit, feed it, and act like it’s fully human. If she fails in these duties, Philomen threatens to kill her. The couple must adapt to the new third wheel as it provides a constant reminder of Matilda’s infidelity.
The Suit’s design fully embraces Brook’s trademark minimalist aesthetic. The stage is strewn with little more than a few small tables, a collection of scattered, vividly colored chairs, and three rolling garment racks. The actors fill out the scenes by exerting their physicality on the sparse space. The racks seamlessly transform into doorways, windows, actual places to hang clothes, etc. The details make the world pop; whether its the mime work of men riding the bus or the lovely quality of the way a draped blanket enveloping two bodies on the chair effortlessly becomes a bed. The design elements are atypical but instantly recognizable. The transformations provide an air of levity and maintain the show’s brisk pace (the play clocks in at just over 75 minutes).
The play blurs the lines between drama, comedy, and music thanks to its stellar cast. As Philomen, Jeremiah radiates sleek confidence and cheer, but he lurks like a cobra primed to attack. When he snaps and releases a venomous outburst of rage it cuts through any playful facade and carries terrifying weight. Kheswa plays Matalida with a balance of timid, crushing regret and hopeful exuberance. Jordan Barbour acts as the show’s utility player, handling the duties as narrator, Philomen’s friend, and other roles. He proves as effective as the fulcrum for comic relief or as he does for dramatic tension.
The Suit weaves music into the narrative in a refreshingly unique manner. A live soundtrack of jazz and African music performed by pianist/accordionist Mark Christine, guitarist Arthur Astier, and trumpeter Mark Kavuma adds a layer of melodic melancholy. The three musicians also hop in to play bit parts throughout the show, tearing down any separation that might exist from having a backing band on stage. A handful of songs—beautifully sung by Barbour and Matalida—spread across the plot, with each coming naturally in the moment.
The Suit handles the surrounding corrosive tide of Apartheid with such a subtle touch that it intentionally lulls viewers into a false sense of blissful ignorance. Just when reaching those moments of detachment, The Suit violently brings the big picture back into view. One particular scene, where one of Barbour’s characters convey tragic Apartheid-centric news to Philomen and punctuates it with a haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” almost seems a sorrowful narrative non sequitur; completely detached from the thrust of the plot at the time. But really, it helps explain everything; underscoring the outside forces that Philomen won’t bring up but are silently wearing on his insides and driving his own cruelty.
A person can put on a smile to hide the caustic effect of oppression, but it doesn’t negate its impact or the effects if one transfers to the pain the ones they love. The Suit is absolutely one of the year’s can’t miss productions.