MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Ménage à froid: Peter Brook’s The Suit

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Rikki Henry, Raphaël Chambouvet, and Ivanno Jeremiah, in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Rikki Henry, Raphaël Chambouvet, and Ivanno Jeremiah, in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

“Truth in theatre is always on the move. As you read this book, it is already moving out of date. it is for me an exercise, now frozen on the page. but unlike a book, the theatre has one special characteristic. It is always possible to start again. In life this is myth, we ourselves can never go back on anything. New leaves never turn, clocks never go back, we can never have a second chance. In the theatre, the slate is wiped clean all the time.” — from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space

Brook’s insights into theatrical reality have meanwhile kept the director himself perennially relevant, despite the inevitable backlash and challenge from younger artists who take his innovations for granted. Consider the theatrical reality he creates in The Suit, which just opened at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

With extraordinary economy — and in dramatic contrast to popular culture’s fixation on psychological realism and “virtual reality” — The Suit centers on one of the most paradigmatic of all stories and yet fills it with surprise, sorrow, and revelation. It is the immemorial story of love given and love taken away — the story of jealousy, revenge, and the patterns of cruelty that link our social, political, and private selves.

In other hands, it might be easy to be misled by the brevity and light touch of this play — it lasts a mere 75 minutes or so — into regarding The Suit merely as a sad and wistful tale, or perhaps a rather slight essay in pathos benefiting from the vibrancy of its South African “local color.” A trio of actors and a trio of musicians together recount the story of a young married couple, Matilda (“Tilly”) and Philemon. Soon after Philemon introduces us to his happy life with Tilly, he’s informed by a friend that she’s been cheating on him. He rushes home, discovering the suit left behind by Tilly’s fleeing (and disrobed) lover. As punishment, Philemon insists that she pretend the suit is her lover, in the flesh, and react as she would to a third person who has now settled in with them.

But it would take the theatrical equivalent of tone deafness to remain impervious to the deeper realities sounded in Brook’s remarkably potent blend of narrative, acting, stage movement, and live music. Simplicity, that hallmark of so much great art, becomes all the more effective when allied with this degree of nuance and ambiguity.

Peter Brook. Photo: Colm Hogan

Peter Brook. Photo: Colm Hogan

The source of this unforgettable theatrical experience is a story by the tragically short-lived South African journalist and fiction writer Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba (1924-1968). His short story was posthumously adapted for the famous Market Theatre in early-1990s Johannesburg by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon.

Over the years, Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, his longtime partner, further honed and directed this material in keeping with the aesthetic of Brook’s Paris-based company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. The show currently on tour across the U.S. represents a more-recent adaptation (in English) of an earlier Brook staging and is receiving its West Coast premiere in Seattle Rep’s presentation.

Themba wrote the The Suit in the 1960s in the wake of the brutal destruction by South Africa’s apartheid government of the black community of Sophiatown. From this thriving though impoverished suburb of Johannesburg, many residents were “resettled” into the sprawling shantytowns of Soweto.

Not that life was easy in 1950s Sophiatown, where one of Themba’s characters recounts a Sunday being denied the right to celebrate with other worshipers by racist church gatekeepers. But it represents a comparative Eden, and this takes on a domestic guise at the beginning of the play in the private idyll as depicted by Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah). He greets each morning as “a daily matutinal miracle” that reinforces his love for his young wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa).

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Ivanno Jeremiah in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Ivanno Jeremiah in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

Here Brook’s method is already apparent. The most minimal of details — framed by a minimalist set of bright wooden chairs, a table, and rolling clothes racks and Philippe Vialatte’s versatile, effective lighting — evoke a world that is simultaneously specific and timeless. Brook refuses to allow us to settle into the complacent (and apolitical) attitude of abstracted “universality”; at the same time, he has no intention to preach a didactic lesson about oppression whose moral we already know (another form of complacency).

And so one dimension of the scene that Philemon so charmingly lays out for us feels like something between folk and fairy tale. But as The Suit progresses, Brook clarifies the dangers and humiliations of his social milieu. Philemon commutes on a bus to his job as a lawyer’s secretary, meets with one of his friends (Jordan Barbour, in a variety of roles) in a speakeasy, where the government’s increasingly harsh racist policies are discussed. A trio of musicians (guitarist Arthur Astier, keyboardist Mark Christine, and trumpet player Mark Kavuma) provides an ongoing level of commentary with powerful music interludes designed by Franck Krawczyk. On occasion they also play minor roles. The pared-down aesthetic here similarly draws a great deal from the elegantly simple cues of Oria Puppo’s costumes.

By the devastating final tableau, you realize how complex and multilayered are the threads Brook has woven underneath the simple facade of the narrative. There’s a recognition of the recurrent elements of human nature — and yet this story could happen only in the most extreme circumstances of oppression and cruelty.

Jeremiah’s demeanor in his first scenes as Philemon is so disarming we spend the rest of the play trying to square it with the humiliation and psychological pain he’s willing to inflict on his beloved Tilly. Barbour’s depictions of a large cast of characters, from Philemon’s “realistic” friend to a flirtatious townswoman at the play’s climactic party, contain an enthralling study in the art of transition and theatrical timing. But alongside even such excellence, Kheswa’s transformation from a bored, doted-on wife to a woman cornered into hopeless desperation is a rare theatrical achievement in its power to shock and move. The visual of the opening returns full circle, but the light-as-a-feather story with which we began is now freighted with the most intricate emotional counterpoint.

As to the actual score, Krawczyk’s choices and arrangements are uncannily effective. Among the pieces the musicians perform are some Schubert references (his song “Serenade,” intoned by an accordion, and the ominous tread of “Death and the Maiden”), a lovely and lilting Tanzanian song (sung by Kheswa), and a chillingly detached version of “Strange Fruit” (featuring Barbour). At the end Christine softly plays the music of one of the most moving arias from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (given just a few weeks ago by the Seattle Symphony).

What we’re left with are gnawing questions of who is to blame, who could have changed, how could the tragedy which had begun like a comedy have been averted — for in theater, as Brook tells us, the slate is wiped clean all the time.

Just before the performance, Jerry Manning and Benjamin Moore of Seattle Rep and Josh LaBelle of Seattle Theatre Group spoke about their partnership to bring this tour of The Suit to Seattle. I very much share the sense of gratitude they expressed that Seattle was able to host Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet back in 2001 — among the most indelible memories of my theater-going life — and that this city is again giving a platform to his work. You really should try to see this one — more than once, if possible.

The Suit runs through Sunday, April 6, at Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre. Tickets here.

–(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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  1. […] hearing these, performed by this particular pianist, so soon after experiencing Peter Brook’s The Suit at Seattle Rep. Janácek’s pared-down lines and poignant, clutter-free harmonies suddenly […]

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