Written in the height of Apartheid by a man who suffered the full force of the regime, The Suit – adapted from Can Themba’s short story – has lost none of its power or resonance. Presented as part of World Stages London by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk, it’s a revised version of an earlier work by Brook, Le Costume.
Set in the Black cultural hub of Sophiatown in the early 60s, the play tells the story of married couple Philemon (William Nadylam) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). He seems a happy man, cheerfully navigating the everyday deprivations of life under Apartheid with the down-to-earth practicality of one who knows things won’t change, buoyed by the love of his beautiful wife. Alas this peace is shattered when he discovers that she is having an affair – and, distraught, he devises a punishment that is surreally cruel: that she must entertain her lover’s suit, abandoned as he fled their tryst, as an honoured guest in their home and if she doesn’t, he says, he will kill her.
Nadylam plays Philemon with such unrelenting good humour that we’re never convinced this threat – issued in the heat of the moment – is true; but nonetheless his wife is a woman of limited options, so complies with the punishment, while seeking some sort of redemption through reinvention, channelling her boredom into domestic productivity. Unfortunately, South Africa under Apartheid is a pitiless place, and redemption is harder to come by than it seems.
For a play about marital breakdown, set against a backdrop of political oppression, The Suit is almost perversely cheerful, and often very funny. Crucially, though, this is always invited laughter; these characters are all too aware of their circumstances, the small absurdities and the moments of deliberate joy, and we are welcomed to join them, the actors constantly engaging the audience in the action. This sense of connection is heightened by a tremendously likeable and engaging cast: Nadylam and Jared McNeill radiate an easy charm, while Kheswa has a touching fragility and vulnerability; they are supported by a group of amiable musicians, roped in to play other roles. These are people who make the best of things, because they live the worst of lives: from laughing at the absurdities of the churches they are excluded from, to Matilda deciding to turn her public punishment into private amusement, dancing with the suit that has become a millstone around her neck. And while we are encouraged to be warmly amused by her transformation to domestic goddess, it is with the acknowledgement that this is no Stepfordian brainwashing, but that in a world where you are unable to – or denied – work, then there is genuine dignity in learning how to cook or sew, and being given the freedom to sing. The one weakness of the piece is that the slightness of the tale and brevity of the show (running at around 75 minutes) means that we never really get any insight into Matilda’s motivations, beyond a vague sense of dissatisfaction: we never understand what drew her to threaten her marriage with a liaison with a man she seems to forget the instant their affair is discovered.
The piece is beautifully balanced between fragile optimism and brutal reality, brought out by a clever and sympathetic use of the music that is interwoven throughout (a mix of recognised standards, original pieces and African folk songs) – McNeill’s rendition of Strange Fruit, sung after the news of a vicious slaying by the police, is a true ‘lump in the throat’ moment, while Kheswa’s beautifully sung rendition of an African song dedicated to ‘those who don’t get what they want’ manages to be utterly heartbreaking despite not being able to understand a word of it; although it tragically proves the catalyst for Philemon’s final act of humiliation that will destroy them both.
Because for all his surface pleasantry, Philemon is a man who feels deeply: the brief glimpses of pain evident when his mask slips are all the more effective because of his efforts to hide it. If the suit is the scarlet letter his wife has to wear, he is carving it into his own heart, and both of them suffer as a result. That this domestic drama is played out against a wider tragedy is never overstated, but equally we are never allowed to forget it: whatever happens in their marriage, the bulldozers are coming to Sophiatown, and their lives will be changed forever. There are no happy endings under Apartheid for those who have no control over their destiny; a stark fact which makes Matilda’s final act a defiance of sorts.
Oria Puppo’s sparse design provides a reflection of Sophiatown living using little but empty clothes rails and coloured chairs, whose versatility illustrates the adaptability of a people who don’t have much, and whose vibrancy reflects a determination to find cheer in the darkness – a resilience which, for all its quietly devastating ending, The Suit somehow manages to convey.