Watching Peter Brook’s version of The Suit—now playing at BAM—is a bit like encountering an appealing handcrafted item from abroad at a Ten Thousand Villages store. You can’t question the loveliness of the object, no one was harmed making it, but you might wonder about how it came to be there for you to buy—and about whether you like it for the right reasons.
Adapted by Brook and his collaborators from a previous stage version—by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon—of a short story by renowned South African writer Can Themba, The Suit tells a simple, sad fable about betrayal and revenge, supercharged by the daily humiliations of Apartheid. A young office worker named Philemon (William Nadylam) tirelessly endeavors to be a model husband and faultless employee. He brings his young wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), breakfast in bed and dresses nattily for work with same scrupulous attention to detail. But one day during his commute, a friend reluctantly tells him that Matilda has been entertaining a lover most mornings, and Philemon’s fragile world comes apart. Churning with jealousy, he returns home, and catches the infidelity in progress—the male party escapes, but, in his haste, he leaves his suit behind.
Philemon devises a warped punishment: the suit should be treated like a human guest. Sitting upright on its hanger, looking weirdly person-like, the outfit must be fed at mealtimes, conversed with, taken for walks, kept close by—always present in the room, watching. The tangible representation of Philemon’s unquenchable jealousy, the suit begins to dominate their lives. (Throughout the piece, news of fresh horrors committed by the police provides social counterpoint to Philemon’s brutal scheme.)
The Suit is performed in a spare storytelling style. A carpet marks the floorspace of a room, wheeled coat racks are rolled in to frame scenes—actors hang off them to illustrate a crowded bus, or lean through to suggest a window. The performers frequently refer to their characters in the third person, narrating themselves into and out of onstage events. This device keeps the turbulent emotions of the play under wraps—implying tumult, but then quickly stepping away from it to keep the story moving.
Brook’s policy of understatement leads to some exquisite sequences: At one point, Matilda, animating Philemon’s strange request with her own lingering longings, talks and flirts with the suit, putting her arms through the sleeves and embracing herself as if she were with her lover—blending absurdity, desire and tenderness in a single lyrical image.
But sometimes Brook’s subtlety could be mistaken for evasiveness. The production appears caught between detailing the systemic humiliations that spur Philemon’s methodical cruelty and rendering an affectionate portrait of the bygone world of Sophiatown, the lively Johannesburg settlement in which the story takes place—a legendary center of black culture that was eventually bulldozed by the government (and was recently rebuilt).
Evoking a concert-party mood, live musicians, seated just feet from the action, jam a jazzy background score—the cast frequently break into song; one Motown-ish unison dance number is effortlessly graceful—or stroll into scenes to swell the crowds. Performers chat with the audience, pretending to pass a joint, inviting them to an onstage soiree. But this easy conviviality often swamps the play’s graver concerns.
Brook lingers on the vibrant atmosphere—flirting dangerously with quaintness— and handles the brutality gingerly. The actors delight in stepping into a range of comic character parts—reeling drunks, senile codgers— the singing is exuberant, and the impression left by the piece is oddly benevolent, given its bleak subject. You might think Matilda is just dozing at the end, instead of dead by her own hand: Kheswa merely slumps her head, as though falling peacefully asleep. It’s as if Matilda’s sad fate and Philemon’s guilt as victim-turned-victimizer are inconveniences best forgotten about. You could argue that the lightness makes the play’s cruel events clearer in retrospect, but I’m not sure that it does. The infectious good humor of the rest of the production makes it too easy to put any unpleasantness out of your mind—Apartheid was then, and this is now.
The production’s mix of understated pain and overstated sweetness leaves a queasy aftertaste. Like that curio in the global knickknack shop, it’s pretty but it lacks sufficient context. Apartheid is indeed over, of course, but it’s not as if South Africa’s struggles with poverty and oppression ended with it. You wonder if Brook—and, indeed, if we—have the right historical or aesthetic perspective to really respond to this still-troubling parable without succumbing to wishy-washy generalities about human pluck in times of trouble. You come away humming the songs, with the ruined lives already left behind.