Peter Brook’s The Suit at The State Theatre Company of S.A.

William Nadylam and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in The Suit. Photography by Johan Persson
William Nadylam and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in The Suit. Photography by Johan Persson

This piece is an absolute theatrical gem. It is also a piece that could never be done justice by any other medium than live theatre. Set in Sophiatown, a South African shanty town near Johannesburg which was destroyed soon after the story was written, it is a story of devotion turned sour by infidelity, of restless loneliness seeking comfort elsewhere, of steely revenge turning into oppression and psychological abuse until it is too late to forgive and forget.

It also tells of courage and calm acceptance amongst the soul-searing oppression and police brutality spawned by the horror of apartheid, even showing how “life must go on” in the face of forced relocation of the town’s population.

But in spite of these awfulnesses, the play has ebullient humour, poignant delicacies, and infectious delights. The three actors: Nonhlanhla Kheshwa as Matilda, William Nadylam as Philemon and Ery Nzaramba in a variety of roles, move seamlessly between narration acting and mime. They are sensitively accompanied by three musicians: Arthur Astier (guitar), Mark Kavuma (trumpet) and Danny Wallington (Keyboard and accordion), who also double beautifully as actors as needed. The music is intrinsic to the entire play, in no way an add-on, whether Bach, Schubert or Billy Holliday. It also features some soulful, cool singing by Kheshwa.

[pull_left]the play has ebullient humour, poignant delicacies, and infectious delights[/pull_left]

The stark, minimalist set of rolling clothes racks and brightly coloured chairs is used, with the actors’ mime, superbly to evoke everything from crowded bus rides, to pouring drinks to a jolting train trip, and doors and windows.

There is masterful understatement and superb tension building and management throughout the magnificent production. This is exemplified as Nadylam as Philemon shows both volcanic inner anguish with outer unruffled composure as he receives the news of Matilda’s infidelity. “Not a bomb, but the breakdown of an infinitely delicate mechanism”. The indubitable intensity could be felt throughout the full theatre. You could have heard a pin drop. His response is to make the suit, left behind by Matilda’s lover who escapes in his undies, the personification of her infidelity. In insisting that she look after their “guest” meticulously, with every consideration, and with “no violence if we can help it”, his malevolent brainwaves insert red-hot needles of embarrassment into her as she seeks absolution for her conscience in some wholesome, refreshing activities.

Her embarrassment and debasement peaks in a shattering party scene when he introduces the suit to the guests as a badge of her shame. Yet can the cruelty of an individual cuckolded lover be any more shattering than the corporate brutality of apartheid against an entire race?

A thoughtful and uplifted audience left contemplating the richness of this challenging and superbly executed jewel of theatre. Don’t miss it.

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