Saturday 26th May 2012, evening
In a recent interview for the Guardian, Peter Brook talks about his latest production of ‘The Suit’ at the Young Vic, saying that ‘simplicity is not a style’. It is a process where the superfluous is gradually taken away, and the result gets better and better. One might find it hard to believe if we hadn’t seen the result with our own eyes.
Adapted from a short story by Can Themba, whom Brook describes as a writer who might have been another Chekhov, ‘The Suit’ is puzzlingly simple. Would we have gone on the basis of the synopsis alone? It is a story about a woman whose husband punishes her for being unfaithful by making her treat her absent lover’s suit as an honoured guest. In Peter Brook’s hands, there is not a trace of pretension or heavy-handed symbolism, and the power of this allegorical story is strangely compelling. Set in 1950s Sofiatown in Apartheid South Africa, we are drawn into the action by sleight of hand, as one of the actors sets the scene, subtlely involving the audience in the story and making us feel as though this is an everyday tale of people just like us. As the three men wait at a bus stop discussing their problems, periodically jumping up to flag down several buses in vain before finally boarding one, we can all empathise. At the same time, it is set at a time of extraordinary oppression and cruelty, and this is where the power of the play lies.
Peter Brook has said that he has discovered that in drama the richest of all tools is the human being, and with this cast he certainly needs little else. As the husband, Philemon, William Nadylam is engaging and humourous, yet painfully aware of the suffering he is inflicting on his wife, whom he still loves, whilst feeling powerless to stop. As his wife Matilda, Nonhlanhla Kheswa has a stillness and innocence which belies the suffering which ultimately defeats her. At first, she thinks she has got off lightly, and the scene where she makes fun of her punishment by playing with the suit as it if is a person is beautifully performed. Her singing voice has a raw and haunting quality. Jared McNeill portrays both the dark centre of the play, with the central description of a single atrocity, and the show-stopping rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, and some of the lightest moments, not least when he is tasked with bringing audience members up on stage for the couple’s house party. It took some searching to find the fourth member of the cast (no, we didn’t buy a programme), who provided some memorable ‘characters’ throughout, but for some reason he does not appear in any of the official publicity. Whilst that might not be unusual if he had been amongst a number of minor cast members in a bit company, it some seem a bit of a slap in the face for one cast member to be singled out for such obscurity. Anyway, Rikki Henry, we loved your man in the toilet, your drunken gatecrasher, and your blind guest with unsteady knees.
The spirit of ‘The Suit’ is captured in the set, with just a few brightly coloured wooden chairs and a series of empty clothes rails serving as both bus shelter and bus, doors, windows, and, occasionally, clothes rails. It is a little ironic that sometimes our view of the actor’s faces was obscured by a rail – usually the rails are in the auditorium, not the stage.
If there is a message from this production, it seems to be that there is no limit to the ingenuity with which human beings can be cruel, especially when faced with the destruction of our most treasured illusions. As if to illustrate the point, the minimal setting makes us complicit in the cruelty, but also enables us to begin to understand it. The relationship could easily be South Africa after apartheid, and a vision of what may have happened without truth and reconciliation.