11/16/13 (Sat), Tokyo
This was a Peter Brook production of a fable set in a South African townscape, based on his French version. It is a slight story in a slender retelling. A loving husband discovers his wife in bed with another man. The man escapes through a window but leaves behind his suit. The shocked husband doesn’t yell or become violent, but coolly insists that the wife keep the suit in full view, bring it to meals and feed it, take it for walks, and otherwise treat it as an honored guest from now on. She complies emotionlessly, but grows increasingly lonely and miserable. At one point, she starts cuddling the suit lovingly, only to be mortified when caught by the husband again. She resolves to reform herself and goes to school to make a contribution to society. She succeeds, prompting the husband to throw a celebratory party at their home. She sings and basks in the glow of having done good. But the husband then brings out the suit again, shaming her in front of everyone. The humiliation drives her to suicide, only at which point does the husband realize how he has been twisted by his inability to forgive.
The story was simple and enjoyable, though pretty thin even for a mere 75 minutes. It was framed by a narrator, who outlined the story and filled in gaps as it proceeded. Apartheid was mentioned in passing but quickly forgotten, which was quite right since the story had nothing to do with politics. There was no great suffering in evidence other than the marital strife. The presentation was largely light-handed, saving its seriousness for the scenes between the husband and wife. The narrator addressed the audience directly at times and even wandered directly into the seats for greater interaction, such as offering a viewer a puff of his imaginary marijuana, which was irritating. But overall it was a pretty straightforward narrative.
I had a problem with the characterizations. The wife was strangely passive, showing little emotion whether caught philandering, being bossed around, being shamed or even singing. That’s partly a matter of the underwritten role, but a better actress might have been able to fill in the blanks. The husband was more engaging but somewhat one-toned, diluting the impact of the final scene. While the creators admirably avoided explicit sentimentality, better writing might have given the story more depth and turned it into genuine tragedy. The other performers, having more to work with, seemed to be having fun.
The set was Brook’s usual minimalist fare, in this case just some chairs, a table, some coat racks serving as doors and furniture, and of course a suit – very starched, apparently, since it could sit upright in a chair. He kept things rolling fairly smoothly. I do wish they had used more props instead of miming their actions; surely they could afford at least plates and cups (if not the marijuana). I’m sure Brook wants to exercise our imaginations, but it comes off like a college acting class. I also cringed when they brought audience members onto the stage for the party scene. So old school.
The music, much of it sung superbly by the wife, ranged unusually from classical (reportedly Schubert and Bach) to Broadway (“Feeling Good”) to jazz (“Strange Fruit”, “Willow Weep For Me”) to a Tanzanian ballad. The song selection, though fit carefully to the story, seemed totally random for the setting, with little that was identifiably African. “Strange Fruit” was a particularly curious choice since the show was not concerned with black/white issues. Was he referring to the main character’s tragic lack of mercy? No clue. That said, the number was sung beautifully, which makes up for a lot of faults.
Along with the man and wife, there were three black actors playing multiple male and female roles and two white musicians (guitar and trumpet) who, in a bit of reverse color-blind casting, played what seemed to be black roles at one point. The accents were from at least three different countries (US, UK, South Africa). I don’t think the roles stretched anyone’s acting chops too far, but the acting was generally fine other than the enervated wife. While the show was hardly challenging, it was pleasant enough. One observation: ¥8,400 seemed excessive for this bare-boned presentation.