Putting On “The Suit”
Editor’s note: Student volunteers at UMS often get the chance to take a deep dive into a performance or art form. In this essay, UMS Marketing intern Clare Brennan reflects on her experiences with “The Suit” directed by the legendary stage and film director Peter Brook. The performance will be at Ann Arbor’s Power Center on February 19-22, 2014.
Photo: Clare Brennan and the UMS Student Committee take the suit around town as part of U-M Museum of Art’s “Love Art More” project. Photo by UMS Student Committee.
It’s not hard for me to remember one of the first books that really moved me. I was sitting in my living room, home alone on a bright August afternoon, finishing up some reading I’d been assigned for my last year of English in high school. I read the final paragraph, closed the back cover, and sat quietly for a while. I might’ve teared up a bit, if I’m being honest. The book was Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, and it was then that I became infatuated with the stories and storytellers from South Africa.
As it turns out, my love for the French language and culture was growing right alongside this, as well as an absolute obsession with all things regarding Anglo-Saxon theater. Imagine, then, my elation when an opportunity to dive head first into The Suit fell into my lap. My nerdy heart fluttered. I accepted as nonchalantly as I could.
Apparently, my fixation with The Suit is not uncommon. Legendary theatrical director Peter Brook loved this story so much that, after directing the story once in French in 1999, he chose to return to it, this time in English. I had the chance to sit down with Michael Kondziolka, the Director of Programming here at UMS. He saw the debut of this production of The Suit last year in New York, and knew that Ann Arbor had to have the chance to see it. “It’s so painterly. A supreme colorist can use shadow and light and color and understands exactly how to use these different media to create a masterpiece. That’s what Peter Brook is doing. He knows how to use actors and written text and music and light and staging and movement and the audience, and how to craft all of that into something that is really powerful, really masterful.”
Of course, any discussion of South Africa must mention the recent passing of Nelson Mandela. The Suit is set on the cusp of Mandela’s most prominent years, and this energy of anticipation of what’s to come silently fills the stage. It provides an opportunity to see a South Africa without Mandela and his work, and as the world reflects on his incredible dedication to his country, taking a moment to step back and hear from those who came before him feels even more powerful.
With that context, The Suit might seem like a eulogy. Far from it. In talking with Michael, I got the chance to hear about what makes a Peter Brook piece tick. At the heart of each of his works is a dedication to simplicity. “This piece has a real lightness to it. And the lightness comes from the performance.” Over almost half- century of work, Brook has pared down his stages, from the intricate scenery of his staging of the Bard for the Royal Shakespeare Company to the openness of The Suit’s space. “It creates a sense of the fun of the performance. So you’ve got this really interesting visual experience. Your imagination is unlocked as an audience member, and that’s really entertaining and satisfying.” Brook trusts his audience, an honor not frequently given, and we’re free to reap the benefits.
While we covered many topics, my chat with Michael really focused on the music embedded in the show. From Schubert on the accordion to a poignantly placed introduction of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (what Michael reverently referred to as “The Sistine Chapel of classical music”), it is evident that Brook knows exactly how to carefully weave music into his work. “Peter Brook is not only a master theater maker but he clearly is a student of culture, and the way in which he understands the meaning of these specific pieces of music and uses them to get his theatrical idea across.”
Studying up for The Suit has been a joy. Peter Brook knows how to tell a story, and his ability to transcend the barriers of the stage and approach each member of the audience with this incredible story of love and loss has no comparison. I’m so looking forward to seeing this show and finding what discoveries I still have left to make. The stage has a magical quality, and, in The Suit, it’s clear that Peter Brook knows it. “It’s pure poetry,” as Michael eloquently sums up. From what I can tell, I think he’s on to something .