Review – The Suit – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Young Vic

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I’m a horrible one for remembering names, but I am a fan of director Peter Brook. His “Empty Space” aesthetic suits me as a fan of theater that tells rather than shows, that allows the user to fill in the detail with their imagination. (It’s the total opposite of the video screen theory of set design, which not only shows you everything you need to see but does it in a way that sucks the viewer’s creative powers.) So I was very excited to see a brand new show by his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord come to The Young VicThe Suit, based on a story by South African author Can Themba.

The premise of the show was simple (per the Young Vic’s website): “a young worker returns home to find his wife in bed with her lover. The lover escapes, leaving behind his suit. In revenge, the husband instructs his wife to treat the suit as an honored guest” – not just for dinner, but every day. It sounded like classic absurdist/surrealist theater, and I wondered what sort of wild extremes they would go to as the story unfolded. I imagined her bathing the suit, putting it to bed every night, taking it to the zoo, et cetera.

The reality, however, was much less than I had hoped for. The suit is sat down for just one meal, and, while supposedly it gets a spot in their bed (I think), it didn’t seem to happen night after night like I expected. In fact, after the first day, the suit doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the lives of Philemon and Matilda except for one humiliating Sunday walk. It comes to life (as it were) when Matilda pretends to dance with it; but otherwise it seems to fall away from the main story.

And what the main story is, well, I don’t know. It seems to be about Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) coming into her own and finding her value as a woman in something more than entertaining herself with young hotties; but it also seems to be about celebrating the life of blacks in a South Africa that was about to be destroyed (referred to in the play but not seen). People go to work on horribly crowded buses; they drink and dance in shebeens; they deal with racism on a daily basis but live in strong communities where women organize self-education groups through their churches. This second bit was my strongest takeaway from the show, the feeling of seeing bits of a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed; and it was lovely.

This, however, must have been an aside, for surely we were meant to be focusing on Philemon (William Nadylam) and his wife, and their journey toward forgiveness/reconciliation or whatever other ending the playwright might have chosen (madness, death, murder, the introduction of a dress – I didn’t know what was going to happen so don’t want to spoil it). But somehow they came to seem like an aside, like a ten minute story that didn’t have the ending that Albee or Sarte would have given it, as they worked it toward an intense exploration of the human psyche. It left me feeling dissatisfied – and unhappy that I’d gotten bored in a play that was only supposed to be 70 minutes long. I sat through 1:50 of Master and Margarita without once losing my focus … why wasn’t this play able to hold me for even two thirds of that time? While I was happy to see another play done in the wonderful Brook style, I’m afraid this one won’t be one I recommend to other people – it was just too slight.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 18th, 2012. It continues through June 16th.)

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