Apartheid era play, The Suit, stuns at OZ

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On the opening night of its short run of The Suit (a play based on a novella by South African author Can Themba), OZ  delivered nothing short of a Francophile’s dream. Though The Suit itself is South African in theme, it was executed and put on tour by the renowned French theatre, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, with an opening reception catered by Nashville’s new French restaurant, Chateau West, with Denis Barbet, Consul General of France in Atlanta, and members of Nashville’s Francophone community in attendance.

The Suit has been traveling for two years, and its production at OZ marks the conclusion of its tour. OZ thus offers a last chance to see this rich, moving, stunningly executed, if somewhat perplexing, show.

The drama, set in apartheid-era South Africa, centers on the deteriorating marriage of Philemon, a black lawyer in Sophiatown, and his wife Matilda. When doting husband Philemon discovers Matilda in bed with her lover, he demonstrates cold rage and an unforgiving spirit. Philemon’s rage could not be fully expressed in the style of the play – often poetic and philosophical as the characters turn to narrate their inner lives to us – but Ivanno Jeremiah’s Philemon, with nothing more than his face, conveys the full weight of his emotional devastation. And only because of this do the poetics of his narration not feel forced or overdone.

Philemon will ignore Matilda’s indiscretion, but the suit, which her lover abandoned when fleeing, must remain their constant companion. It eats with them, sleeps with them, and even goes on outings with them. It is a constant reminder to his wife of her indiscretion, but it likewise forces her constantly into the situation of potentially being asked to explain the surreal presence of the empty suit. The alternative, he proclaims, is that he will kill her.

On a walk.JPGMatilda’s expansive dream of performing was of a piece with the feeling of lack and longing which led her to stray in the marriage. Thus, when we find the play punctuated by musical interludes where she sings, it is not gratuitous. Nonhlanhla Kheswa, who plays Matilda, is an enchanting singer and gives great life and depth to the songs, both Western and African, she sings, which delivers on Matilda’s sense of longing to transcend the prison of her life.

When the play reaches its climax, everything tips. It has always been clear that the punishment cannot be maintained, and events have allowed us to believe that, perhaps, it shall not last forever. But the disruption of a party celebrating Matilda rehabilitation brings her face-to-face with reality: her husband will not, perhaps is no longer able to, forgive, nor let her go. The sense of dread and inevitability that lingered over the play now sets like concrete and simply will not let go. 

The Suit, as seen conceptualized and directed by the extraordinary Peter Brook, is unsurprisingly minimalist, to which the space at OZ for the performance was perfectly suited. But it is a triumph of minimalism, as the cast deftly transforms chairs into beds and outhouses, and metal frames from windows into buses. Likewise the musical ensemble is able to serve in various roles as auxiliary characters, deftly and without relinquishing instruments. The transformation, in particular, of Arthur Astier into a member of Matilda’s married ladies’ club is accomplished with nothing but a hat and an extraordinary use of facial expression.

Beyond their fantastic, often humorous, though wordless presence as actors, the musical ensemble is indispensable to the success of the sensory experience that is The Suit. More than providing music for the fabulous singers, the instrumentals give a tremendous vitality and sense of motion that the small stage could scarcely deliver without the music. One almost imagines the way that music fills out the sense of story that silent movies still manage to deliver. As Astier explained during the Q&A that followed, “we are a part of the storytelling with the music – we are acting with music! The story is about listening and playing, not elaborate sets and distractions.”

Nevertheless, the play leaves one with a sense that two stories are being told: the bulk of the play centers on this marital drama, but there is a second story, the story of the fate of Sophiatown, a vibrant black ghetto, a source of music and culture, that is about to be liquidated and relocated, that reappears but never quite seems to integrate with the main story. Some may find this unsatisfactory: others may be pleased with the opportunity to do the work of drawing these two narratives together.

In either case, The Suit, which will be performed at OZ on Friday-Saturday, May 23-24, 2014, is provocative theatre executed at the highest level of skill, and is truly a worthy theatre-going experience, which leaves us with highest hopes for what is to come at OZ.

On a walk photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt