Walking out of the theater after this brilliant, unsettling show last Tuesday night, I didn’t know exactly what had happened. Ben Brantly’s Times review had prepared me for a play that “breaks your heart” with a light and musical touch, but not for the pleasurable disorientation I felt.
The minimalist set, deftly managed by Peter Brook with clothes racks and hangers, as well as intricate lighting and inventive music, presented a semi-abstract vision of the South African township Sophiatown, which was soon bulldozed after the events of the play. With moving parts and jury-rigged partitions, it resembled a transparent, open closet, a window into confined lives and imaginations.
The play had opened with husband and wife, Philomen and Matilda, slouching against each other on chairs arranged into a threadbare marital bed. It ended in precisely the same place, despite the intervening discovery of the wife’s adultery, the husband’s insistance that as penance for her infidelity she care for the suit her fleeing lover left behind, and the husband’s final public exposure of the suit’s secret after she has invited local guests, and a few lucky audience members, into their home to hear her sing.
During the play I kept thinking about how the meanings of adultery expanded and tumbled over themselves as the play went on, from the thin edge of disbelief that cracked open the love we’d seen on Philemon’s face in the opening scene, to a political allegory of life under apartheid, to the slow emergence of Matilda from frustration into art as she joins a “cultural club” and allows herself to learn to sing. None of these schemes quite captured the play’s rich ambivalence, the semi-Beckettian combination of abstraction and human desperation. It didn’t matter so much what the suit meant, which of the many meanings the play would finally settle upon. We were watching lives entwined with not-quite-knowable symbols, and never knowing, never settling, seemed perfectly fine.
Sometimes one side of the meaning-whirlpool appeared to surface by itself, The peak moment of political allegory came when the play’s narrator, played by Jared McNeill, sang Billie Holiday’s brutal song of lynching in the American South, “Strange Fruit.” His piercing, pure voice, unadorned, spoke to the entanglement of emotions and repression.
But that piercing protest, while perhaps the most stunning of the half-dozen songs performed, seemed to me to have been a sideways move away from the human center of the play. The transatlantic shift to pre-Civil Rights America globalized the story, but most of our attention remained on Philemon and Tilly, their see-through house, and his refusal or inability to let go of the suit and its explosive memory.
The ending mystified me — and not just me, I asked around and others were confused too — so much that I had to google the original story, by Can Themba, to be sure that the sleeping wife wasn’t going to wake up after the applause stopped. The story related a tragedy, though I wasn’t sure of that when I walked out of the theater. Philemon’s compulsion to remember, to expose, to force the suit back into view, had killed his wife.
Is is a problem that I wasn’t sure what had happened in the moment? Or might this ambiguity represent one of the stranger, fuller, more deeply integrated combinations of tragic loss and comic endurance that I’ve seen in a while? I do like a tragicomedy, if given my choice.
I’m glad I caught this one during its brief trip to Brooklyn.