Sheer Enchantment: The Suit
State Theatre is bringing The Suit by world-famous director Peter Brook to Adelaide. Peter Burdon spoke to State Theatre Producer Rob Brookman.
Ever since his first encounters with Peter Brook in the 1980s—and no one who was there will ever forget the 1988 Adelaide Festival performance of the Mahabharata in a quarry in the Adelaide Hills, or the simply transcendent moment when after an uncomfortable all-nighter, a Dawn Raga floated through the air as the sun rose—Rob Brookman has been a devotee of this most famous of all famous directors.
He’s been in the fortunate position of being able to attract Brook’s productions to Australia a few times in between, and in 2014 he is bringing, for a short season exclusive to Adelaide, Brook’s 2012 triumph, The Suit. “The piece actually dates back to 1999,” Brookman explains. “He did a production in French with the translator Marie-Hélène Estienne at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. He wanted to do an English version at that time, but he couldn’t get the right people, and one thing I have learned about Peter, from as long ago as the Mahabharata, is that he’s obsessive about casting, and he won’t do something if he can’t get the people he wants. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. In this case it took more than ten years!”
The impetus for The Suit, Brookman says, was Brook’s developing relationship with the Young Vic, the UK’s main theatrical venture that aims to provide accessible, high quality theatre to a wider audience than the mainstream companies. “Brook is eternally curious, even though he’s nearly 90. He’s open to so many ways of being creative, and in the collaboration with the Young Vic he was able to assemble the cast he wanted and The Suit was produced in 2012.”
Needless to say, it was rapturously received. “The play is outwardly quite simply,” says Brookman. “It’s set in Sophiatown, one of the black townships outside Johannesburg, in the apartheid era. A man discovers his wife is having an affair when he comes home and surprises them, and her lover runs away but leaves his suit behind. The man makes his wife keep the suit and it becomes part of their lives, a constant reminder. It’s a very thoughtful revenge!” But The Suit is deeper than that. “Absolutely,” says Brookman. “It’s also about trust and forgiveness, and that takes on a special meaning in apartheid South Africa.”
Brookman is among Australia’s most experienced producers, but even he admits to being blown away by this piece. “I remember reading the New York Times review which I think captured it perfectly when it described a feeling of ‘enchantment’ about the whole thing. You don’t often get language like that from critics. When you go to the theatre, the desired effect is that you lose yourself, but critics invariably keep a closer eye on what’s happening. To have one of the leading critics admit to being completely caught up in the experience is a pretty rare event.”
“And that’s the way I’ve found it as well,” he continues. “The atmosphere is like a fable, and it’s certainly got a moral message, but it’s not told as a fairy story at all. And it’s surprisingly gentle and kind to the protagonists, which you might not expect from a play where big emotions like revenge and guilt are right in your face. But that’s where you need to remember what Brook has said about his own eternal quest to find the centre of humanity in everything he does, and in The Suit you’ve got moments of great suffering and moments of great peace. It’s enormously rich.”
An aspect of Brook’s production that has attracted much attention is the role of music. “Four musicians play live on stage,” Brookman says, “and they’re very much a part of the action. They surround it. And it’s such an eclectic mix, from Fauré to Billie Holiday, and the performance of ‘Strange Fruit’ is an incredible moment. A song about lynchings in the American South transplanted to South Africa. That’s pretty amazing; everything about it is.”
[Top image] The Suit. Photo: Johan Persson
The Suit is in the Dunstan Playhouse October 1-12, 2014. Book at Bass.