Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa are husband and wife in The Suit, a touring production from Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord now at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Adultery leads to a cruel and unusual punishment between Philomen (Jeremiah, left) and Matilda (Kheswa). Photos by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt.
Simplicity translates into great beauty in The Suit, a skillfully wrought tale that originated as a story by South African writer Can Themba and has been directed for the stage by the legendary Peter Brook who adapted the story with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk.
The Suit, adapted from a previous stage version by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, is offered as a contemporary fairy tale in the Grimm style. A charming narrator (Jordan Barbour) tells us that this is the kind of story that could only come out of oppression (such as apartheid), but while that feels heavy and ominous (and for good reason), Brook and his team demonstrate such a light touch that we’re charmed as the trio of musicians emerges. First Mark Christine on the accordion, with its lonely, melancholy sound, followed by Garthur Astier on guitar and Mark Kavuma on trumpet adding a livelier, happier tone.
The simple set by Oria Puppo features chairs in red, yellow, blue and green, a few tables and rolling garment racks to become walls, wardrobes, busses and more. It’s a rudimentary set-up, but like so much about this production, simplicity leads to abundant beauty.
The narrator takes into Sophiatown, a small township of Johannesburg that in the 1950s was alive with the culture of black South Africans. There he introduces us to husband and wife Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) snuggling in their bed. Philomen gets up and goes through his morning ablutions and brings his lovely wife breakfast in bed before he catches the bus to work in the city.
When things go wrong for Philomen this day, they go wrong in a big way. A trusted friend shares some difficult news with Philomen, who returns home to find his wife in the arms of a lover. Rather than snapping into a rage or confronting them directly, Philomen takes a surprising tack. When the lover flees the house in his underwear, he leaves behind his suit on a hanger, so the husband decides to use that suit to keep his wife off balance and good and shamed. He also, it should be noted, threatens to kill her (in a surprisingly gentle way) if she doesn’t do exactly what he says.
Matilda is not confronted by her adultery directly. Rather, she is told to honor the suit as if it were a guest in their house. She must feed it at meal time. She must treat it with great respect and talk to it, sing to it.
The thing we learn about Matlida, so beautifully played by Kheswa, is that she is a dreamer. Always the prettiest girl, things came easily to her, and she was allowed to believe great things would happen for her. A happy marriage to a nice, hard-working man is not satisfying her (hence the lover). She dreams of being a singer, and that dream, even amid the strangeness of the suit, begins to be realized and allows Kheswa to sing gorgeous songs ranging from “Feeling Good” to the Swahili “Malaika.”
Philomen may be helping his wife’s dream come true, and she may think he has forgotten about the suit, but he has not. Her shaming has no end, and the fairy tale has no happy ending. The villain, though is less Philomen than it is apartheid itself, the oppressive force that warps all it touches.
At one point we hear about horrendous violence perpetrated on a black South African by the police, and that story leads to Barbour singing “Strange Fruit,” the song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday, and it was for me the 75-minute show’s only heavy-handed misstep.
Otherwise, The Suit, for all its darkness and political undercurrents, is a deeply personal love story told with grace and enchantment borne of simple, direct staging. The use of music and song to evoke emotion is a marvelous touch, and this small company with its bare essential set, makes the gargantuan Geary feel intimate and alive.
I interviewed director Peter Brook for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.
Here’s a glimpse of The Suit
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Suit continues through May 18 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.