The Suit (Lyric until 31 Oct) – enchanting theatre examining the effect of a violent society #belfest

Recent revelations and the steady stream of new people coming forward to access Victims & Survivors Services remind us that Northern Ireland is still coming to terms with the deeper consequences of how the Troubles affected society and in particular family life.

The Suit is a play from Théâtre Des Bouffes Du Nord that looks under the lid of the bustling 1950s South African suburb of Sophiatown as it prepared to be broken apart and sent 20 miles further out of Johannesburg to make space for white working class housing. In a middle of that civil disturbance, a marriage was also on the point of collapsing.

The Suit image 1Philomen (played by William Nadylam) gazes over adoringly at his sleeping wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) as he gets up for work each morning, until one day he is told that his wife has an intimate visitor every day after he leaves.

Soon after Philomen arrives home, a man in his underpants runs out of the flat leaving his suit behind. The husband’s reaction is at first muted, but he formulates a novel punishment.

I see we have a visitor. We should show him every hospitality … he will eat every meal with us and share all we have … you, Matilda, will look after him meticulously …

Propping the suit up on a chair, the trophy husband threatens to kill Matilda if she doesn’t respect their ‘visitor’. The suit is fed at mealtimes and watches over them in bed. Tension builds as the passive aggressive bully ritually humiliates his wife and the audience reevaluate who they think the real victim is.

It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism …

The Suit - Photo by Tristram KentonThe simple set fills the stage with painted chairs and clothes rails which are spun round to create new rooms, windows and even vehicles. The gentle lighting settles the mood with primary colours washing across the dark backdrop. The Lyric main stage acoustics allow Matilda’s singing to fill the auditorium with hope and joy.

Three musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Kavuma and Danny Wallington) sit to one side accompanying the action with a muted trumpet, piano, accordion, guitar and an array of colourful hats. They also act the role of minor characters in the play. Despite the destructive – and deconstructing – relationship, Peter Brook’s direction (along with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk) introduces humour with some characters engaging with the front row of the audience and throwing in the occasional ad lib.

Actor Ery Nzaramba anchors many of the play’s crucial moments with his narration, though the other characters also speak of themselves in the third person, narrating their own circumstances and actions. It’s an unusual but distinctive device that works well throughout the unhurried 75 minute performance.

It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism …

The Suit image 2The Suit is based on a 1950s South African short story by Can Themba. Just as violence hangs over the apartheid society, in turn violence, humiliation and repression are present in the lives and relationships of those living in the black township. Northern Ireland audiences should ask questions about how the Troubles affected our society, and whether we have yet recognised the consequences and begun to properly deal with the aftermath.

Despite the miserable-sounding plot, The Suit is an enchanting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. It is stripped back, at times whimsical, yet deadly serious about the repercussions of a violent society. Between the mellow music and the script, it’s an intimate piece of theatre that is just the right length and leaves you feeling satisfied – if a little sad – by the end.

The Suit’s brief run as part of the Belfast Festival finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Friday 31 October. So hop on your broomstick tonight and get yourself a couple of tickets for a cracking piece of theatre.