What would you do if you arrived home unexpectedly, and discovered your wife (or partner) in bed with someone else? Well, in this play the result is not quite what you might expect, even if the title gives an enigmatic clue. It is not violent retribution that is set alight, here, but a peculiar psychological punishment which at first sight seems amusing and almost harmless, but ultimately has devastating consequences.
Part of the World Stages London season (hosted at the Young Vic and several other leading London venues), 'The Suit' was originally a short story written back in the 1950s by a South African, Can Themba. His works were banned by the Government of the time and the author was exiled to Swaziland where he quickly died of a fatal mix of poverty and alcohol.
The sadness of Can Themba's life and the hideous injustice of Apartheid are both reflected in 'The Suit', but even if the play has rather sad undertones throughout, it does not actually start that way. Jared McNeill acts as a kind of narrator introducing us to life in the township where the story is set. Talking directly to the audience, Mr McNeill produces instant engagement and rapport, pretending to pass round 'puff' and clinking invisible glasses with people in the front row. Next, we meet Philemon (that is my guess at his name, since the programme and all other publicity fails to give it). He seems content, with a beautiful wife and a job as a sort of PA. But when he bumps into a friend on the way to work, he is in for a shock. Returning home he discovers his wife in bed with another man who manages to escape (leaving his suit behind in the process), and leaving Matilda to face the music. Philemon decides to punish Matilda by having her treat her lover's suit like an honoured guest who must be present at meals, when taking a walk and even when the pair are holding a big party at their home. The punishment turns out to be much more spitefully cruel and brutal than it first appears, and more than Matilda can endure.
'The Suit' is a strange kind of show which is hard to describe accurately. Music is played in the background almost throughout and there's haunting singing from Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Jared McNiell. You might think that makes it a musical, but it really is not, at least not in the traditional sense. A more apt description might be a musical play, but even that is not sufficiently precise. There's more of a cabaret atmosphere in the way this show is constructed and performed, partly because of the intimate nature of the subject, partly because it is performed by a fine, small team of 4 actors and 3 musicians, and partly because the audience are so close to and involved in the action – it's almost like being in a jazz club. In fact, the play is more about intimacy than anything else which fits neatly with the theme of betrayal arising from Matilda's infidelity and it is reflected in almost every aspect of the production.
This is just the kind of play that the Young Vic was designed for, and pulls-off quite brilliantly. It is a remarkably refreshing, warm and endearing play with appealing characterisations, wonderfully melancholic singing and a well- balanced mix of humour and drama. 'The Suit' might be a short play (around 75 minutes long, without an interval), but it draws you in from the very first minute, keeps you transfixed, and like most plays of this seductively simple style, leaves you begging for more, perhaps with a tear in your eye. The audience loved every moment of it, and so did I.