On BAM’s “The Suit” and Peter Brook

Monday, January 21, 2013

Getting out to BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music,  always feels like a risky adventure for me, usually a confirmed Manhattanite.  Every time I go to New York, though, I’ll check to see what’s playing, because it’s always worth getting a little lost … if the weather be good.  But the bottom line is I’ve never seen anything at BAM that is anything less than superb.  The Harvey Theatre is surrounded by subway stations, but traditionally when I emerge from any one of them I am totally disoriented.  There are several buildings associated with BAM, so if I ask for directions locally, I’m invariably sent off to the wrong one.  In the effort to accommodate disoriented fans like me, BAM used to sponsor its own bus from Manhattan, but that meant more expense, the extra time of getting to Grand Central extra early, and the exasperation of being the last stop coming back.  The solution I’ve come up with is to get the No. 2 train to the Nevins station in Brooklyn, leaving plenty of time to get lost, misdirected, and recovered.  If there’s a good late afternoon film at the BAM Cinema, I’ll do that.  This time there wasn’t.  I had to walk only 4 blocks in the wrong direction before discovering that the station is virtually across the street and a half a block from the Harvey.  BUT … I’d left time for a nice dinner at a little Italian bistro around the corner from the theatre.  No fuss, no anguish, no rush!

And what a treat:  Going on safari to Brooklyn last Friday night was the second major reason I’d planned this particular week to be in New York.  Peter Brook was to give a talk-back following the performance The Suit, which he had directed.  Anyone who has studied even a little theatre knows that Brook’s book The Empty Space is the bible, any contemporary actor or director’s starting place.  As audience, my own experience with him began with his 1963 film, The Lord of the Flies, and then Marat/Sade.  Many years ago, I saw both his Cherry Orchard and his Mahabharata right here at BAM.  Since 1974, he has primarily been working in an old Paris train station with his company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.  He doesn’t often bring work over to the States any more, so I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity.

IMG_0584The Suit, is Brook’s adaptation of a folk play by South African playwright Can Themba.  It takes place against a backdrop of Apartheid.  Themba was exiled and his work banned in his own country, and he died of alcoholism at a young age.  The setting of the story is a township that has been razed to the ground by “the authorities.”  The story itself is a simple one:  A husband catches his wife in bed with another man, who flees in his underwear.  The suit he leaves behind becomes the public symbol of the wife’s infidelity and she is condemned to carry it with her everywhere she goes.  She dies in shame just before her husband was persuaded to forgive her.  Ah, but the staging is all:  Nothing but a carpet, some colorful wooden chairs, not always upright, and to serve as an entrance to the house, a coat rack –empty but for the suit in question.  And there were onstage musicians to help in telling the story and take part in the action.  The play included renditions of two very familiar songs:  “Strange Fruit,” a lynching protest song originally written in 1937 by Brooklyn Jewish school teacher, Abel Meeropol (the same man who would go on to adopt the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The second was “Malaika,” a tragic Swahili love song made popular by Miriam Makeba and Pete Seeger in the 1960’s.

The play itself was pure Peter Brook:  story, style, minimalistic, and quite magical.  Of course, dealing as I am now with rewriting Welcome, Jack!, my own little folk play told by onstage musicians and using as few props as possible, I was especially intrigued.  In The Suit I found much to learn from, and much to be reassured by.

Still, it was the appearance of the 87-year-old Brook himself which had drawn me out to Brooklyn.  And a few minutes after the play ended, out he came, alone, shuffling, briefly touching for stability whatever furniture he passed.  Older readers here might picture a cross between John Houseman and Alfred Hitchcock.  As he sank into a chair and removed his jacket, he remarked that he had been asked whether he wanted a moderator.  He had refused, “… because I am not generally known for moderation.”  For the next hour or so, he simply answered questions taken directly from the audience.  As with any such session, some of the questions were short, honest and perceptive, and others were lengthy, self-aggrandizing and esoteric.  But Brook answered them all with equal aplomb, frequently quoting his own words from The Empty Space and other work.  “Why did you include this? Or “How do you feel about that?  Most of it came down to three often contradictory responses.  First, he intended this shared experience to be universal, positive and non-political.  Secondly, he believed in simplicity, on filling the “empty space” using only what is necessary to tell the story effectively, and no more.  And thirdly, no matter what fancy explanations may be manufactured to justify or explain his work, his choices are always based on that word nobody seems to be able to define:  “Hunch!”  That’s all.


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