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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Suit—Love, Apartheid Style

by Alicia Dhyana House

William Nadylam & Nonhlanhla Kheswa-Réveil in The Suit. Photo: Johan Persson

Peter Brook is a theatrical prophet. For the past seven decades the contributions of this visionary British director have traversed theater, film, and literary worlds. Brook has spent a lifetime exploring his craft and the world in pursuit of stories eager to be told. Now in his 80s, Brook continues to extend the boundaries of theater by stripping down drama to its universal human essentials. His latest production, The Suit, hailed by The Daily Telegraph as “unforgettable” and “theatre as it should be,” arrives at the BAM Harvey Theater from Jan 17 to Feb 2.

Originally a short story by South African author Can Themba, The Suit is an intimate tale shaped by adultery and simmering revenge set in a Johannesburg township in the 1950s. “It could have only occurred to the incredible imagination to somebody living under oppression,” Brook said in a recent phone interview from his home in Paris. “It’s the story of a man’s oppression as a revenge on his wife who he loves dearly. It’s almost as if the author unconsciously dramatized what it was to be a young person loving a South Africa and at the same time burning with anger and fury because he was not being recognized.”

Brook’s respect for Themba and justice is fervent. “The most talented man writing short stories on the level of Chekhov couldn’t be published because he was black,” said the director. Frustrated with apartheid, Themba left Johannesburg in the early 1960s. The writer was declared a statutory communist in 1966 and his works were banned in South Africa. A few years later, in his mid-40s, he died from alcoholism. His best pieces were posthumously collected in The Will to Die (1972).

In the 1990s, in newly liberated South Africa, Brook first came across Themba’s story with his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne. It was Barney Simon and Mothobi Mutloatse of the Johannesburg’s Market Theatre who originally adapted The Suit into a play. Brook remembered how moved he and Estienne were by the piece. “It was an essential human story that needed to be told and we knew at once we had to do our own adaptation and staging,” he said. The duo adapted the play in French a decade ago and their production traveled the world.

William Nadylam & Nonhlanhla Kheswa-Réveil in The Suit. Photo: Johan Persson

Now Brook and Estienne are giving The Suit a new life by returning to the story in its original English language and collaborating with composer Franck Krawczyk. When asked about revisiting the work at this particular moment in time, the director responded, “Nothing in the theater stands still—some themes just wear out, while others long to live again. There are so many brutal regimes at this very moment, from Syria and throughout the world. Can Themba is a tragic hero of our times.”

Peter Brook’s longstanding relationship with BAM dates back to 1971, when BAM presented his groundbreaking interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, often described as one of the 20th century’s most significant productions of Shakespeare because of its courageous break from tradition. As part of the 1987 Next Wave Festival, BAM specifically renovated the Majestic Theater (renamed the BAM Harvey Theater in 1999) for Brook’s nine-hour Indian epic, The Mahabharata.
Brook shared a recent visit he had with his good friend, former BAM President Harvey Lichtenstein. The two reminisced about the past. “It was with A Midsummer Night’s Dream where it all started. We took a fundamental step and decided the people located closest to the actors must pay the least.” Brook’s passion crackled over the phone.

“The true relationship is the one that existed in Shakespeare’s theater—where the people closest were the young, the crowds, the pickpockets—the ones closest, to whom the actors speak.” As a result, a few rows of cushions surrounding the actors were sold for a dollar each. “This was the beginning of a revolution in BAM’s approach to its public and how the Harvey Theater was originally conceived.” Floor seats are still used when possible, keeping alive Brook’s concept.

When the director was asked why he continues coming back to BAM all these years later, Brook took a deep breath, “Love. It’s as simple as that.”

Alicia Dhyana House is a freelance theater director based in New York City.

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