Using deliberately sparse means and a tiny cast within the delightfully crumbling Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Peter Brook has worked a South African tale of adultery and cold consumptive jealousy into a sort of contemporary “Othello.”
The scenery comprises a few sparse pieces of furniture shuffled around to suggest changes of scene and mood in the house of a married couple in the black township of Sophiaville. The dramatic construction, meanwhile, is self-consciously complex.
Compensating for the lack of set and as fulsome as the stage is gaunt, a prologue, pronounced in none too fluent French by the character Maphikela, quite literally sets the scene. We then see Philemon awaking and miming all his early morning gestures, commenting on them, meanwhile, in the third person.
The dramatic spring of the play is the infidelity of Philemon’s wife, Matilda , with a lover who flees the house in his shirt, leaving behind the suit that gives the play its title. Philemon’s revenge consists of forcing his wife not only to treat the suit as an honoured guest, but also to seat it at table, feed it and ask it for news. After the initial flush of humiliation has worn off (walking the suit out on Sunday, for example, under the disapproving gaze of imaginary neighbors), Matilda adjusts rather successfully to her bizarre, long-term punishment, even indulging in a brilliantly mimed, langourous dance with the suit. Sensibly, she embraces a combination of regular church worship and good works to regain emotional equilibrium.
But protracted and calculated as it is, Philemon’s cruelty finally breaks her. While having some difficulty with French diction, Marianne Jean-Baptiste proves an exquisite Matilda, avictim of her own careless libido who sings exceedingly well and movingly in two languages. Once the cumbersome prologue is out of the way, Kouyate comes into his own playing not only Maphikela, a township layabout, but also a range of minor roles.
After a brief appearance as the fugitive, half-naked lover, Marco Prince similarly acts an array of brilliant cameo parts, supplying, with Kouyate, a dozen successive different characters at a party thrown by Matilda. This is a bittersweet story, saved from the pitfall of melodrama by a host of small, comic effects: a tale of destructive mercilessness told with an almost magical economy of means.