In his seminal 1968 work “The Empty Space,” Peter Brook wrote: “Certainly, we still wish to capture in our arts the invisible currents that rule our lives, but our vision is now locked to the dark end of the spectrum. Today the theatre of doubting, of unease, of trouble, of alarm, seems truer than the theatre with a noble aim.”
This vision of what theater should be has permeated Brook’s work for decades, and is on full display in his production of “The Suit,” which opens in Tokyo on Nov. 6.
“The Suit” takes audiences to the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown, which in the late 1940s and 1950s was a vibrant mix of ethnicities, political ideas, music and literature. In its shebeens, artists, thinkers and activists gathered for lively debates away from the racist eyes of South Africa’s police.
Then in 1950, the Immorality Amendment Act made it illegal for people of different ethnicities to live together. And as plans to relocate Sophiatown’s black population came to light after that, Nelson Mandela, an English Anglican archbishop named Trevor Huddleston and other members of the newly formed African National Congress united residents in protest.
In 1955, nonetheless, 2,000 police forcibly moved Sophiatown’s black residents out to another township named Meadowlands. Sophiatown was demolished, remade as a white suburban settlement, and renamed Triomf (Triumph).
Among those displaced when Sophiatown was erased from the Johnnesburg map was Can Themba (1924-68), an investigative reporter with the radical magazine Drum. Themba later used that artistic enclave on the brink of extinction as the backdrop for his most famous short story, “The Suit,” which was published in 1963 and first staged in the early 1990s in Johannesburg. Then it was translated into French for a production by Peter Brook in Paris in 1994, which the director followed with this English-language version premiered in London in 2012.
Produced by the Paris-based Theatre de Bouffes du Nord founded by Brook in 1974, “The Suit” is currently touring Europe and will debut at Shibuya’s Parco Theater next week before heading to Singapore and the United States. It has played to rave reviews in New York and London, where Laura Thompson of the Daily Telegraph called it “theatre as it should be,” while Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that the play “feels like devastation by enchantment. The sadness will linger, but so will an elating sense of this show’s enfolding magic.”
The story of Philomen (William Nadylam) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), a seemingly contented black couple in Sophiatown, “The Suit” opens with Philomen catching his wife in bed with her lover, who he sends scampering out the window — but without his suit.
As punishment, Philomen forces Matilda to treat the suit as an honored guest that must sit at the dinner table with them and go with them everywhere. As such, Matilda’s cruel punishment mirrors the humiliations people of color faced daily in 1950s South Africa — making for simple but powerful theater that’s amplified by vibrant music and a bare-bones set.
Now in his 80s, the work’s lead director, Peter Brook, shot to fame with his 1970 staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Royal Shakespeare Company at its Stratford home — widely regarded as one of the most influential Shakespeare productions ever. Borrowing from commedia dell’arte, circus and radical 1960s theater groups, Brook’s “Dream” dispensed with period costumes and lavish sets in its approach to the work as a timeless exploration of love — in the process redrawing the parameters of Shakespeare for coming generations. Similarly, through his work with the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Brook continues to push the boundaries of theater and art itself.
Visually, “The Suit” somewhat recalls that 1970 “Dream,” which famously made use of a simple white set with two doors and minimal props. It also accords with Brook’s argument in “The Empty Space,” where he contends that theater is defined by relationships between actors and audiences — such that any empty space can become a theatrical one.
In the case of “The Suit,” simple metal clothing racks stand in for bus stops, doors and the window through which Matilda’s lover escapes; brightly colored chairs and a sheet become a bed and a bus-stop bench; and actors pass each other invisible props and lean on invisible surfaces.
So, with set and props stripped away, it is up to the performers (and the very powerful music) to fill the empty space — but lead actors Nadylam and Kheswa seem more than up to the challenge: the New York Times’ Ben Brantley called Kheswa’s performance “a ravishing blend of self-possession and perplexity,” adding that “everyone on stage is pretty close to perfect.”
“The Suit” marks yet another collaboration between Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, who most recently worked together in 2011 on “A Magic Flute,” his adaptation of Mozart’s opera, which she directed. Estienne was a journalist specializing in theater when she saw Brook’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Calling it a “revelation,” she immediately knew that she wanted to do theater, not only write about it. She has been working with Brook and the Bouffes de Nord ever since.
Estienne first adapted “The Suit” with Brook in French in 1994 as “Le Costume,” but despite touring with it internationally she later felt it needed to be adapted again, in its original language.
“This time it had to be different — more music, and live music, and not only songs but with a small group of musicians,” she said in a recent interview.
“With the help of (longtime Brook cohort) Franc Krawzcyk, we mixed classical music by Bach, Haydn, Schubert, Janacek and others with different songs — some from South Africa by Myriam Makeba, but also Nina Simone’s ‘I Feel Good’ and the beautiful and harsh ‘Strange Fruit’ [about racist lynchings in the United States, recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939].”
Estienne says that “The Suit,” whose French and English versions have played all over the world, touches everyone, regardless of country or language. “The subtitles change, but it seems to provoke the same reactions. Sometimes the audience is quieter, sometimes they laugh more, but in the end they share the same emotions.
” ‘The Suit’ touches everyone, rich or poor, wealthy or struggling in the Third World. Everyone can be touched by it. This is a very important aspect of theater: not to be elitist, and to try to speak to the life we live.”
“The Suit” runs Nov. 6-17 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya. For tickets, call 03-3477-5858 or visit www.parco-play.com/web/program/suit.