Theatre review: The Suit is rich tapestry of love, hope and regret

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 25, 2013

Review Theatre


Theatre Des Bouffes Du Nord

DBS Arts Centre/Last Saturday

A well-tailored suit can make a man and as it turns out - it can break him as well.

Director and theatre legend Peter Brook, master of the minimal, has crafted a production that is at once both gutting and uplifting, one brimming with lilting musicality and song but also straining against the weight of pain.

Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah) has it all. A decent job, good friends and a beautiful wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), whom he adores. Or does he?

He catches her in bed with another man, and in that instant, their lives are irrevocably transformed.

The violence inflicted here is emotional. He forces her to endure a punishment as sadistic as it is masochistic - to treat the suit of her departing lover as a guest in their home.

Written as a short story by the late South African writer Can Themba in the 1950s, The Suit is as heartbreaking as it is achingly funny.

The anecdote of a black South African man facing discrimination from various churches, for instance, is told with a lightheartedness that makes his circumstances even more devastating.

Throughout the evening, the laughter emanating from the audience was one laced with tears.

"I can take any space and call it a bare stage," Brook wrote in his seminal theatre text, The Empty Space (1968), one whose opening lines have been memorised by theatre students and practitioners the world over - "A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

He is true to his word.

There is no melodrama, there are no histrionics. The actors deliver their lines matter-of-factly, even when their characters are bottling up huge floods of emotion - as if to say, it is what it is.

The only prop is the titular suit. The set of colourful wooden chairs, stacked like children's building blocks on stage, belie the sharp edge of Themba's bitter medicine.

A single movable metal frame can become a wardrobe, a crowded bus, a mirror, a door or a window, and even a toilet stall.

The production's music is almost a character in itself, and the three musicians on stage are as much a part of the action as their actor counterparts.

Kheswa, who plays Matilda with subtlety and grace, has a voice of molasses and spice. The chameleonic Jordan Barbour, who plays the role of narrator and family friend, Maphikela, takes on one of the most profound songs of the evening: Strange Fruit, made popular by Billie Holiday, a song about the lynching of African Americans that is brutally apt here.

"Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze," he sings, his voice cracking with emotion, "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

On first glance, the fleeting scenes of apartheid seem cursory, almost skin-deep. This light touch, it seems, did not work as well in Brook's 11 And 12, which was staged at the 2008 Singapore Arts Festival to cool reviews of his superficial treatment of colonialism and religious fundamentalism in 1930s Mali.

But in The Suit, apartheid is the backbone of the piece, an echo of people subjugated because of the colour of their skin - and on a more immediate level, because of their gender.

It is a parable within a parable, with the life of Matilda running in tandem with the play's setting, the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, a rich musical and cultural hub wrecked by the cruelties of apartheid.

Its black residents were forced to relocate because of racial segregation and the area was rezoned "for whites only". In the same way, Matilda is bound to the whims of her husband even as she longs to be free.

But as much as The Suit moves the soul, there is the sense that the work was just a little too close to the pristine to convey the grit and raw emotion that comes with hurt and humiliation. You could see the gloss of perfection on every gesture, every crack in register, a precision from a firm directorial hand, down to the actors' tear-streaked faces.

No doubt, the actors embody each character with utter dedication and it is impossible not to feel for every single one of them, to embrace their vulnerabilities as our own.

But with that checklist of exacting perfection comes a loss of that unruly, magnetic wildness - even if The Suit was beautiful nonetheless.

The piece calls for a significant amount of audience interaction, and this summoning of the spectator, this invocation for us to be part of the work, can be seen as a gimmicky conceit.

But I could not help but be pulled into this rich tapestry of love, hope and regret.

The Suit marks the final instalment of the 3 Titans Of Theatre series jointly presented by the Esplanade and the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

It was preceded by UK theatre company Complicite's sensuous Shun-kin in August and, from Japan, the Ninagawa Company's delightful Musashi earlier this month.

Together, the triple bill works a little like a wonderful three-course meal: a stunning entree, a lavish main course and a beguilingly bittersweet dessert.

And all one can do is cross one's knife and fork across the plate, take a breath, and go - bravo.

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