The Suit: Theater Review

An ineffably effortless, modest and accomplished late work by theater titan Peter Brook.

This South African drama set during the apartheid era focuses on middle-class infidelity.

As long as I have attended the theater, I have been an adherent of Peter Brook and for nearly 50 years have never missed any available opportunity to experience his work. Since he split his over 70-year career between London and Paris, that has meant for me only those productions that have been exported to the U.S. (around a dozen, most prominently Marat/Sade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Mahabharata) and the nine feature films distributed here (including Lord of the Flies, Marat/Sade, King Lear and Moderato Cantabile). He has long mastered the technique of penetrating flamboyance, yet his progress has inexorably trended toward that of a patient, exacting teacher of the most profound relationship of art to the spirit.

So, inevitably enough, this local arrival shortly after his 89th birthday would be unthinkable to miss during its short run (a documentary illustrating his rehearsal techniques by his son Simon, The Tightrope, is screening concurrently in Beverly Hills). In 1999, Brook mounted a French-language version (with Jean-Claude Carriere) of the South African dramatization of the most famous short story by Cam Themba, a writer suppressed under apartheid and exiled to a miserable alcoholic early death in Swaziland. Other than Shakespeare, Brook has not often returned to prior material, yet he and his collaborators have now come around to reconceiving the production in its original English language.


In the short-lived cultural sanctuary of the Sophiatown township of Jo’berg, intellectually analogous to our pre-World War II Harlem or Central Avenue but laboring under far fiercer poverty, denial of basic human rights and repression, artists such as Themba faced crushing censorship and annihilating retaliation that, even more than with a Solzhenitsyn, Havel or Mzorek, required subterfuge through fable and folklore masquerading the metaphors. Even intimations of satire would have been precarious.

Here, Philomen (Jordan Barbour, most recently seen here in Stormy Weather at the Pasadena Playhouse), an amiable yet inevitably alienated middle-class black lawyer, catches his wife Matilda (singer-actress Nonhlanhla Kheswa, formerly featured vocalist for Wyclef Jean ensembles and five-year Broadway vet of The Lion King), with her lover, who flees in his underwear leaving his suit behind. Foregoing recrimination for unyielding reproach, Philomen insists Matilda maintain the ensemble, with its knotted tie, as an omnipresent honored guest to be fed at table and kept in the wardrobe in the bedroom. He remains a loving and attentive husband, freely consents to his wife blossoming through cultural enrichment, only to insist nevertheless on her unstinting humiliation.

Starting as it does with live strains of Schubert on a squeezebox, it is easier to describe what The Suit is not than to tease out what it is: It’s neither flashy, showy nor innovative (except for innovations Brook pioneered so long ago that that they are now commonplace), nor even ostensibly profound. It implies the scathing without irony. It does not sweat those implications of representation in either event or character that comprise the preoccupations of so much modern theater. There is nothing referential or post-modern about it.

Indeed, though the selection of tunes is not particularly inventive (“Strange Fruit,” Miriam Makeba, the Tony Newley-Leslie Bricusse “Feeling Good”), in the most basic sense, The Suit is conceived at its heart as a musical, consistent with Brook’s extensive experience in opera and in physical movement, here expressive more through suggestive minimalism than conspicuous display.

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It is a political play that conveys an undiluted anger while raising its voice only sparingly, a historical indictment without histrionics. Its artifice may be thoroughgoing resolute, yet so effortless that it melts into utter naturalness with every gesture.

Long ago, Brook began to prune spectacle from his stagings after decades of brilliant success at epic conception. As in its source material, here the complexity of effect and vision come from a relentless simplicity. Whether viewed comprehensively or moment by moment, Brook traffics solely in essences. Considerations of balance, of unheralded grace, and of seeking centering in both the corporeal and spiritual realms display transcendence in the most direct and easily apprehensible ways. The Suit does not pretend to change either the world or us, except to allow us to see great historical forces on a modest scale that better befits our otherwise arrogant conceit that we can master ourselves individually or collectively with any triumphalist understanding.

There is a great deal to glean from this most special and brief theatrical experience, barely over an hour, even as it remains rigorously cogent and transparent, the insights not so much to take as to realize. Politically and artistically, it teaches us first to breathe, then to hear that sound of our breath with humbler awareness. 

Venue: Freud Playhouse at Macgowan Hall, UCLA (runs through Apr. 19)

Cast: Jordan Barbour, Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa, with musicians Mark Kavuma, Mark Christine and Arthur Astier

Direction & musical direction: Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk

Playwrights: Adapted by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk; based on the play by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon; based upon the short story by Themba

Lighting designer: Philippe Vialatte

Costume designer: Oria Puppo

A production of Theatre des Bouffes du Nord produced for the U.S. by David Eden Productions, presented by The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA

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