In 1967, The Suit appeared as a short story by South African writer Can Thema. Brook created a stage adaptation for it in French, in 1999. Later, working with Marie-Helene Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk, he added a musical score and translated the play into English. The story is set in a township of apartheid-ravaged South Africa. The miserable conditions for the black race here are often referred to but don’t claim the central focus of the drama. That task goes to the characters of Matilda and Philemon, husband and wife whom we meet on an early summer morning.
Philemon is determined to survive, for “ordinary life has to go on” even for a black man surrounded by the overwhelming hardships to be faced in 1960’s South Africa. He must wait for the one outhouse shared by a whole section of his township; he must watch over-crowded busses ignore him and zip by, keeping him from arriving at his lowly clerking job. But before he leaves for work, he makes sure that his beautiful wife has breakfast in bed in their neat, small hovel. It against this background that Philemon learns that while he is off at work, his wife is sleeping with another man. The dehumanizing conditions in which Philemon struggles are reflected in his complicated and harrowing reactions to her infidelity.
Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa play the husband and wife, while Jordan Barbour assumes a number of roles, most notably the narrator and Philemon’s thoughtful friend. The rest of the cast is made up of a musical trio: horn, guitar and piano/accordion. The trio ably assumes a number of additional roles as The Suit’s story plays out.
Peter Brook’s set is nearly bare: a few coat racks, some brightly painted chairs, four lights atop steel poles and the suit, hung upon a wooden hanger. In this austere background, the outstanding work of Jeremiah and Kheswa is greatly magnified, making the Rep seem to be a much smaller, more intimate theater. Often during the production, Brook had his actors simply face forward and stand down center stage. Rarely have I seen such effective blocking. Here Kheswa performs her heart breaking song Malaika, singing of “an angel, a little bird” loved by one who is too poor to make her a bride. And it is here that Jeremiah stands and displays a myriad of emotions as his proud character comes to terms with his wife’s betrayal. These are wonderfully moving theatrical moments.
Brook fills the evening with countless imaginative touches. The coat racks can be a door, a mirror or a city bus. The chairs can be a bed or a table with simple manipulation by the actors. A good deal of the exposition is handled reader’s theater style, not unlike the technique used by Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theater. Most entertaining, is the clever use of audience participation that comes later in the play. This 2014 American tour is the first time The Suit will be performed in the U.S. outside of New York City. It is a unique opportunity to see Peter Brook’s work come alive.
The Suit plays through April 6 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in the Seattle Center. Costumes by Oria Puppo, Lighting design by Philippe Vialatte. Ticket information at www.seattlerep.org/Buy/Tickets