Is Brookian an adjective? You know, in line with Brechtian or Stanislavskian? Perhaps it’s better to say Brookist or Brookite. Brookish? Whatever the word, for better and worse, The Suit is perfectly, absolutely, unconditionally it.
A revised and translated version of Le Costume, seen at the Young Vic in 2001, it aims for simplicity in everything it does. These days Peter Brook’s theatre is a sort of ur-theatre, a deliberate return to a more primitive form. It strips out the conventions and shorthand that have accumulated in search of genuine communication between these performers and this audience.
Instead, Brook and his co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne build a stage language from scratch, reliant on play and recognition. There is no ego here. Whatever works best is used. Other directors would reject ‘Summertime’ as cliché. Brook accepts it as powerful and clear.
It’s instructive to compare Brook to Sebastian Nübling, because both want the same thing: to make each moment as effective as possible. However, they set about that task in opposite ways. Where Nübling adds, Brook takes away. One is composite, the other triple-filtered to remove any trace of impurity. The Suit wants nothing more (and nothing less) than to tell you a story as best it can.
That story – fable is probably more precise – is one by South African writer Can Themba and in it, a husband discovers his wife’s adultery and subsequently forces her to treat her lover’s abandoned suit as a human being. It is a story, we’re told, that couldn’t happen in a community that didn’t live ‘under the iron first of oppression’. Here, that’s is the black community just west of Johannesberg, who are increasingly squished into a cramped township.
Brook doesn’t stress the point – there is never a flagged moment to say ‘this is key’ – but Philemon consistently finds others in his place. Bursting for the toilet, he finds it occupied. Waiting for the bus, two pass without stopping – either full or on account of his colour – and when the third finally stops, it’s rammed. Trains home are so full that, each payday, men return home having lost their earnings to pickpockets. Then, of course, there is the other man in his bed.
It is out of this enforced routine of sardines that Philemon’s act of punishment springs. It is an echo of the social order, whereby one can demand obedience from another. It is learned behaviour, though it springs from nature.
William Nadylam’s Philemon recognises this fully. He addresses us when delivering his sentence and, though chiefly serving to maintain distance between actor and character, he seems unable to look his wife in the eye. As if he knows the cruelty of his action – and yet, each time, he cannot stop himself. His face becomes a neutral mask that suggests both shame and relish at once.
Brook even manages to make the punishment seem, at times, noble, even merciful. When Philemon forces Matilda for a stroll with the suit on her arm, the humiliation she feels is real, but it is also imagined, since no-one else is any the wiser. It is a private shame between them and yet – and this is perhaps the crux – Philemon cannot remain entirely detached forever. He must, inevitably, overstep his mark. No man or woman has the right nor the constitution, it seems, to stand in judgement over any other.
This is all well and good, but the Young Vic is not the right context for it. Without wanting to sound snobbish, though inevitably immediately doing so, the fable lacks the sophistication that this particular audience (I generalise, of course) craves. Yet Brook aims to provide, as best as possible, just the story. He aims to do away with the game of hide and seek, of coding and decoding that characterises most theatre. He wants to tell us straight so that we won’t miss the point.
We, in turn, end up admiring that technique – the how rather than the what – and it precisely the transparency and the purity of The Suit that proves distracting. Brook has, in effect, made the simple storytelling show par excellence and we end up marvelling at the excellent simplicity of the telling rather than the story itself.