BWW Reviews: An Intimate Evening with Peter Brook's Company and THE SUIT
The Kennedy Center's international theater festival got off to a truly moving start, thanks to a three-evening visit from Peter Brook's company, Theâtre des Bouffes du Nord and their touring production of Can Themba's short story, "The Suit." Set in South Africa, in the suburban village of Sophiatown, "The Suit" is a cautionary tale of infidelity, jealousy, and the heavy toll that vengeance can take. It was a rare opportunity for Washington audiences to experience one of the world's master artists at work-an artist whose 60+ year career has spanned any number of innovations, but whose style has remained deceptively simple.
The story's author, Can Themba, was a talented writer whose career was cut short by Apartheid, forced dislocation, and the self-medication that afflicts so many who live under oppression. His works were banned in South Africa for decades, but thanks to theatre artists Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, "The Suit" became a theatre staple and introduced Themba's work to an entirely new audience. Themba lives on now in productions like this one, and one can only hope he knows how much we appreciate him now.
The story of "The Suit" is simple as well, offering as it does a canvas upon which the performers can work with a wide variety of colors; and the spontaneous interplay between musicians and actors guarantee that no two masterpieces are the same from one night to the next. We meet the lawyer Philemon, who is a cheerful and doting husband to Matilda, his bored stay-at-home wife. Matilda, a young, talented and restless beauty, initiates an affair while her husband is downtown at the office. When he learns of Matilda's infidelity, Philemon's jealousy drives him to extremes; and although they are not of Othello's proportions, they cut to the emotional bone. His punishment is to insist that his wife treat her lover's suit (left behind after their last encounter) as an honored guest, even to the point of displaying it in public. Ivanno Jeremiah is tremendously appealing as Philemon, whose slow rage is made the more disturbing by the warmth he exudes from the very beginning; his heartbreak and descent from decency to madness becomes our own. Jordan Barbour, our narrator, sets the scene and provides a number of supporting characters, including a close friend of Philemon who serves as his conscience.
The musicians stroll onto the stage to get the show rolling; Mark Christine wanders on with his accordion, Mark Kavuma with his trumpet, and Arthur Astier joins in with his guitar as well, and the collaboration begins, loosely, with the exchange of musical phrases. Not only do they provide incidental music throughout the show, they also double as actors, providing "extras" in scenes as needed; in one amusing sequence, with little more than the donning of a hat or two, they arrive as women. But throughout the play this acoustic ensemNonhlanhla Kheswaprovises music to comment on the action of the play, and in some instances the music is heartbreakingly familiar and apropos; the account of the murder of a guitar player is performed to the gentle melody of a tune by Victor Jara, one of the Pinochet dictatorship's first victims. And the use of a famous motif from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" closes out the performance unforgettably.
By far the most memorable aspect of "The Suit" is South African actress/singer Nonhlanhla Kheswa, whose musical talent drives the plot forward; given the severe limitations placed on women in Matilda's situation we can sympathize with her poor choices, and with her bewilderment when it becomes clear that Philemon remains dead-set on revenge. The performance is a vehicle for her to sing her way through the evening, but it is also clear that Kheswa's commitment is to preserving Themba's memory and introducing him to audiences who (like me) have never heard of him before.
What makes any production from Theâtre des Bouffes du Nord special-it was collectively created this time by Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estinenne and Franck Krawczyk-is the emphasis on simplicity. The set, the staging, the acting technique and the performance space itself all serve the experience of theater, of artistry, not simply entertainment. The bare stage is punctuated here and there by chairs (in a glorious rainbow of colors) and suit racks, a table, and not much else. Oria Puppo has created a fine, understated collection of costumes, with one notable exception (Matilda's, of course-but not at first). Philippe Vialatte has also made excellent use of the Theater Lab grid, to focus our attention on the actors. The results are wonderfully intimate; even in the Terrace Theater with its hundreds of seats, the cast makes you feel like you are in a much smaller room, and in one memorable scene it's as if we all were invited guests to a house-party. This intimacy, which draws us in from the moment the stage is lit, makes the denouement of Themba's story that much more devastating.
Photo: Nonhlanhla Kheswa as Matilda. Photograph by Johan Perrson
Performances for the World Stages: International Theater Festival take place March 10-30 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For tickets and more information, visit: