the suit
Thursday, 07 June 2012

Theatre Reviews: 8 June

A graceful play by a director who continues to astonish at 87 years old

Written by Steve Barfield


Steve-Barfield-block-176The Suit is a 'new musical play' adapted from a short story by black South African writer Can Themba (1924-1968) and is playing as part of the World Stages Festival. It has been adapted and directed by legendary British director Peter Brook with collaborations from Marie-Hélène Estienne and Frank Krawczyk (music). Although now offi cially retired and living in Paris, 87-yearold Brook is still regarded as the single most innovative British theatre director since the Second World War.

This adaptation has all the hallmarks of his directorial style at its best: it is spare, minimal and economic in its staging but is visually arresting; poetic in its language but with emotionally rich characterisation; a story of ordinary people's humanity that is tinged with political insight. If you have never seen Brook's work, then this is a fine example.

Can Themba was a tragic figure, a writer and journalist based in Sophiatown, which was to become the Harlem of 1950s Johannesburg: a melting pot of artists, writers, political activists, drug dealers and petty criminals. Themba told his wife when he finished The Suit that it would bring them fame and fortune. Instead, Themba's work was banned under Apartheid and he was driven by the authorities to exile and death by alcoholism in Swaziland in his mid-40s.

The story is deceptively simple. A devoted husband finds his adored wife in bed with another man, who then flees, leaving his suit in the wardrobe. To punish both of them, the obsessive husband insists the suit must be treated as 'an honoured guest', given a place at the dinner table and taken with them everywhere they go. Such madness leads to heartbreaking tragedy and desolation at a moment when they seem as a couple to have finally moved beyond their troubles. Throughout all this, we learn that the destruction of Sophiatown and their hard-won life is imminent.

Nonhlanhla Kheswa is very moving as the suffering and guilty wife who's seeking atonement, and she sings like an angel. William Nadylam is impressive as her devoted, but quietly mad, husband, while Jared McNeill takes on a number of roles, including the story-teller/confi dante with much skill and panache. The trio of musicians, who also act additional parts, are as notable as everything else about this production. This is 70 minutes of exhilarating, vital theatre that is as powerful as it is graceful.

Until 16 June at the Young Vic, London SE1: 020-7922 2922,

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