Can Themba’s short story The Suit, depicting the black cultural hub of Sophiatown, Johannesburg in the 1950s, is given a touching and honest adaption and direction (by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne with accompanying music composed by Franck Krawczyk) at the Young Vic as part of World Stages London. A story about love and forgiveness against the backdrop of South African apartheid, it is a moving piece of theatre that wins over its audience through its transparency, presenting theatre in its purest form: a sharing between audience and actor. True to Brook’s simplicist direction in recent years, the sharing of his work takes place on a single square rug that becomes the playing space with moveable costume racks and chairs (design by Oria Puppo) acting as doors, windows and any manner of ways of sparking the imagination of the audience. It is this level of simplicity, coupled with the exceptional cast, that makes The Suit a remarkable show.
Philemon (William Nadylam) wakes and creeps out of the bedroom to get ready for work, but not before admiring the beauty of his wife, Miranda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), who’s still asleep. Philemon has it all, the perfect wife, a roof above his head and a job to pay his way; he is beyond happy which is clear as Nadylam projects the biggest smile possible to the audience. Yet whilst Philemon is at work his wife is at play with another man, who, after being caught in the act (Philemon is tipped off), runs into the streets in his underwear leaving only his suit behind. Out of determined love, Philemon punishes his wife not through vicious words but by having her adapt the suit into their lives, requesting it to be as a guest to the house, to be fed at the table and share their bedroom, for isn’t this what Miranda wanted in the first place? The punishment, whilst comedic in parts, becomes a silent torture that both husband and wife endure as they are constantly reminded of adultery in their home.
Where the story shines is in the silent torture from the suit, which becomes a haunting character within the home, along with Themba’s integration of the wider racial discrimination that sees black men murdered at night or pushed off trains on payday. The Suit is a bleak, resonating performance that captures apartheid against the actions of a man who tries to forgive and forget his wife’s shortcomings.
Brook and Estienne’s direction for the play is remarkably simple, allowing the audience to revel in the imaginative qualities that they provoke. Within this simplicity is a depth of concentrated understanding and commitment from the cast, which instantly draws the audience within the playing space. As is true with much of Brook’s work, it is the refinement of gesture, emotion and stillness (whilst equally being expressive, comedic and larger-than-life) that keeps you rapt. Kheswa’s astoundingly emotional singing, a combination of English and African songs, also propels The Suit into glorious tenderness. It is hard not to be captivated by this work, when even the use of chairs and costume rails to divide and transform the space leaves you mesmerised by the sheer inventiveness.
The Suit, with sparse staging and simplistic direction, is in many senses a pure and honest production. Stripping back the masquerades and grandeur of theatre, you could easily perform the work in daylight – outside in fact – and still be awestruck. There is enough tomfoolery in over-the-top characters with musicians playing elderly women to warrant a laughing audience, but this is countered with the brutality of a black community which is segregated and victimised with racist violence. Whilst we never witness it, the mentioning of these lone men murdered or discarded leaves its mark upon us. This is a tender production, an often laugh-out-loud affair, but it is equally a challenging reminder of the callous history of South Africa and further afield. A captivating production, by one of the masters of theatre in the world today. Whatever you do, try and see this to revel in Brook’s understanding of form and presentation.
The Suit is playing at the Young Vic until 17th June. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.