The Suit

adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon
based on the short story by Can Themba
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

Confronting you with its minimalist aesthetic and soulful music, this tender and heartbreaking tale directed by the legendary Peter Brook is a fitting end to the SRT’s 3 Titans of Theatre series. The Suit is based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba and charts the life of Philemon and Matilda, a couple living in the Johannesberg suburb of Sophiatown, whose lives are torn apart by adultery. When Philemon discovers his wife in bed with another man, he devises a simple punishment: that she carry the suit around the house and treat it as a treasured guest as a constant, scalding reminder of her infidelity.

Most of the joy of this piece lies in Brook's superb staging. All the scenes are conjured up using just a few coloured chairs and movable metal frames. These, alternately, become a church door, a bus, a window and even an outdoor toilet and the cast move easily from one scene to the next. A lot of the colour also derives from the music provided by three live musicians onstage who occasionally join in the action with gusto.

Photo Credit: Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord/SRT

The young, versatile cast are uniformly strong. There is very good work by Jordan Barbour as Philemon, who has a natural charm that shines on the stage. Nonhlanhla Kheswa is equally mesmerising as Matilda, with a voice like shimmering glass and the ability to refract rich emotion through a single glance. There is also outstanding support by Ivanno Jeremiah as the narrator and Philemon's close friend Maphikela, whose easy chemistry with the other actors and gift for comedy make him a hit on stage.

The theme of adultery is a black rash running through the play but Brook uses humour to keep the tone light. Jaunty, comic sequences and snatches of songs keep the narrative compelling. Along the way, we also tap into broader issues, gaining a rich snapshot of a community: one that is marginalised and destitute but nonetheless teeming with life. Harrowing accounts of a black musician being tortured and shot and accounts of the casual racism shown even in a church remind us of the rigid world of apartheid the tale is rooted in.

Photo Credit: Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord/SRT

However, I found some of these segues a little jarring. Indeed, the final reappearance of the suit during a raucous party scene (with audience members coaxed onstage by the enthusiastic cast) seemed to take everyone by surprise. The character of Matilda also does not truly evoke pathos: she seems too stubbornly stoic to be remorseful for her actions and the sudden, sobering ending strikes one as somewhat far-fetched.

It's ultimately the craft of the storytelling in The Suit that lingers long after the play ends. Brook has helmed a powerful human story and used that as canvas to sketch a sweet and poignant celebration of life and its many pleasures and passions. And it makes for a rewarding evening at the theatre.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*See my review of Yukio Ninagawa's Musashi, also part of SRT's 3 Titans of Theatre series, here.


Popular Posts