Dusting off The Suit

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Can Themba — the formidable teacher, journalist, writer and playwright. The Market Theatre honoured Themba’s talent and legacy by showing his most famous and celebrated work, The Suit.

Initially a short story, The Suit was first adapted by publisher Mothobi Mutloatse and playwright Barney Simon, bringing it to theatrical life in 1994. It has since toured the world.

Last year, a short film adaptation, directed by Jarryd Coetsee and starring South African theatre legend John Kani alongside his son Atandwa, won an award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.

The story revolves around Philemon, a man consumed by betrayal, grief and revenge after he witnesses his wife’s infidelity with an unknown man. In the Market’s adaptation, Philemon was played by Siyabonga Twala (popularly known for his role as Mpiyakhe on Mzansi Magic’s telenovella Isibaya) with a cast that includes Lindani Nkosi, Molefi Monaisa and Andile Nebulane, who grace our television screens daily.

This particular retelling of The Suit was superbly directed by stage, film and screen actor James Ngcobo, who described the experience as something very different from plays he’s worked on before. “We put the story in a blender and told it how we wanted to. We tried to steer away from nostalgia and made a period story relevant to 2017.”

And that’s exactly what the production was, a different and refreshing take on traditional theatre with an enduring relevance. Ngcobo’s use of the plural “we” is unsurprising, because collaboration was reflected in his directing style. In his work Ngcobo employs a careful and committed consideration to everything and every­one.

“It’s important for other voices to speak,” he said, highlighting the need and opportunity for everyone to contribute — from the technical team, costume designer, cast and set designer.

Although embracing the period and reflecting the psychosis of the time (1950s apartheid South Africa), The Suit managed to break free from the confines of Can Themba’s home in Sophiatown to tell a timeless story. The minimalist set consisted of a table, three chairs, huge French doors and a single bed.

The only explicit references to Sophiatown were images of the forced removals projected on the screen, which heightened certain scenes
with history that added a sense of urgency.

The introduction of film and TV award-winner Zola Nombona to theatre made the play even more remarkable. She played Philemon’s wife, Matilda. Dancer and choreographer Lesedi Motladi added dimension and character to Matilda’s role with her sensual and deeply emotive choreography. Nombona (25) was an obvious choice for Ngcobo. He described the newcomer as a brave and passionate talent who captured his attention during her audition.

“I thought it fitting to have a young actress play the role of Matilda,” Ngcobo says, because it was much easier to play with the power dynamics between a young Matilda and the more controlling Philemon.

The rest of The Suit’s cast was outstanding. The chemistry between them was palpable, especially Twala and Nombona. Each actor was fully committed to the play’s narrative arc and the development of each character — features that the audience had plenty of time to absorb.

“We took a beautiful yet simple story from a flat page and breathed life to it on the floor,” says Ngcobo, who is also the artistic director of the Market Theatre, which he describes as one of the most difficult things he’s ever done.

With Ngcobo at the helm for the past four years, the Market Theatre has held on to its historical role in Johannesburg, forging a future in an evolving cultural climate, most notably the overwhelming development in the Newtown precinct over the past few years.

He has made it his mission to preserve the ethos of the Market Theatre, without allowing nostalgia to stifle the possibility and opportunity for progression. If The Suit is any indication of the theatre’s future, it is in safe and capable hands.

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