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'The play's author could have been the next Chekov, but was banned. Could anything be more cruel?'

The acclaimed director Peter Brook tells Matthew McCreary about bringing an Apartheid-era production to the Belfast stage

Ten minutes isn't much time to prepare for an interview with anyone, let alone one of the world's most esteemed theatre directors. But, thankfully, when it comes to talking about his latest production, Peter Brook - with whom I've been granted a rare and very unexpected last-minute interview - is in expansive form.

The veteran of countless productions of Shakespeare with the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Paul Scofield is this time looking towards a more unfamiliar tale from Apartheid-era South Africa as the source material for The Suit.

Based on a story by South African writer Can Themba, the play centres on Philemon, a middle-class lawyer, and his wife, Matilda.

The suit of the title belongs to Matilda’s lover and is left behind when Philemon catches the illicit couple in flagrante. As punishment, Philemon makes Matilda treat the suit as an honoured guest — she has to feed it, entertain it and take it out for walks as a constant reminder of her adultery.

“The theme of an unfaithful wife's relationship with the husband and the lover is the oldest theatre story that exists,” says Brook (89) in his rich English drawl, still intact in spite of four decades of living and working in France.

“What is amazing is that it is a completely new (story); in particular, the extraordinary invention of this husband to torture his wife for infidelity, one has to go back to Othello to find something with that complexity.”

The production is one of the highlights of this year's Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, which kicks off on October 16, and, as befits a production of this depth, the tragic back story of the play and its author is just as compelling as the tale being told on stage.

Themba, a journalist and university graduate, had expected the short story he wrote in 1950s South Africa would change his life for the better, but fate — in the form of Apartheid — decided otherwise. Like all black authors in South Africa at that time, his books were banned, and Themba was exiled to Swaziland where he died in his early 40s of poverty and alcoholism, in 1969.

“What is very compelling is that this (story) could only have taken place in a country where the dictatorship creates such an intelligent young man, Can Themba, who was suffering from the most incredible situation,” says Brook. “He was one of the most talented young writers, who could have been perhaps the second Chekhov, but was forbidden to publish. Can you as a writer imagine something more cruel?

“This is both a human psychological drama, a marital drama and a deeply political one at the same time.”

Likewise, the origins of the stage version of Themba's story are just as compelling.

“Some of the laws in South Africa said that the only place where black and white people could mix freely was in a market, for obvious commercial reasons, but in the theatre it was not possible,” explains Brook.

“So this group of actors started a theatre within the market in Johannesburg which became known as the Market Theatre, so it was possible for them to have the only place in South Africa where they could have a mixture of black and white actors and audiences.

“It was they who, after the end of Apartheid, put on the very first adaptation of this story in their theatre. When I read about it I thought this was remarkable.”

Brook and his team first adapted the play into French, then English, each time the production being greeted with acclaim by audiences and critics alike wherever it toured.

“The story is like Shakespeare, set in a specific place and time and yet has become so free — it has South African music mixed with Franz Schubert but the two just sit perfectly together,” says Brook. “None of the audiences has yet noticed anything anachronistic when watching the play.”

Given the play's setting in the Apartheid system of racial segregation, which collapsed more than two decades ago, one might be forgiven for thinking that it could have lost a little of its immediacy, but, for Brook, the political context is perhaps more relevant than ever.

“My collaborators on The Suit were studying it when they were taking another of our plays, The Magic Flute, to Latin America on tour,” he says. “They were very struck by the dictatorships there, but recent history shows us you don't have to go to Latin America to find the cruellest dictatorships; they are under our noses, such as in the Middle East and even closer to home.

“We have put it in the context of the story that the author wrote, which was South Africa, and that is very present, it isn't something that has gone out of date with the end of Apartheid, unfortunately.”

Indeed, one location Brook and his team are still hopeful to bring the play to is South Africa itself.

“Eventually, I hope (it will play in South Africa). These things are always complex and take a long time to arrange but it is our dearest wish to go and do it there.”

Given the diversity and global reach of Brook's work it's perhaps surprising that his visits to Northern Ireland have been few and far between. Indeed, he struggles to recall exactly when his last visit here took place at all. “I visited Belfast only once and that was a very long time ago,” he says.

Likewise, he is unfamiliar with many of the playwrights to have hailed from these shores in recent years and whose plays have enjoyed successful runs in theatres around the UK.

“I'm very little in London, so haven't been part of that scene for quite a while,” he says.

In spite of being unable to attend the festival this time round, he is nevertheless hopeful that the play's visit to Northern Ireland might bear “a new relationship”, subject to a “full and glowing report” from his production team.

Where he can empathise, though, is with the prospect of yet more financial hardship in Northern Ireland’s arts sector, with big organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra and Lyric Theatre being told they may have to face a 5% cut in Government funding to their budgets.

“(The politicians) are less and less interested and the old message that this is important for the world, all that doesn't cut much ice so we have to go on struggling,” he says. “And there’s the whole meaning of the world struggle. It's something that you come back to and continue with and try always to find the means to suit the present moment; whereas we could make grand-sounding claims some years ago, now we have to be more modest and work within the limits of the possible. We must go on fighting to persuade people.”

As it stands, his working schedule is largely dictated by whichever project “declares itself right for now”.

However, a return to his other successful medium of film directing (he helmed the acclaimed 1963 black and white adaptation of William Golding's disturbing novel, Lord of the Flies, among others) just isn't possible, given his myriad other commitments, he says.

Nor is retirement likely, even if he does stand on the cusp of his tenth decade.

“I live in the present and do whatever life dictates,” he says simply.

Alas, a detailed look back over his remarkable career just isn't possible in the limited time we have, but he is characteristically modest in his response to my query as to which of his many productions he is most proud of.

“None at all, there is no feeling of achievement or pride ever,” he says.

“Nothing but gratitude, that's the only emotion in relation to the past — not for myself but for all the people, people like yourself who are preparing the way by writing about (the work), people who bring their judgment to it.

“We're all part of one cohesive group making theatre!”

  • The Suit features in the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's from October 29-31. For details, visit www.belfastfestival.com

A titan of stage and screen

  • Peter Brook was born in London in 1925 and directed his first play in 1943. He then went on to direct more than 70 productions in London, Paris and New York.
  • His work with the Royal Shakespeare Company includes classics such as Measure for Measure with John Gielgud (below), Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier and King Lear with Paul Scofield.
  • In 1971, he co-founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, a multinational company of actors, dancers, musicians and others which travelled widely in the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s. In 1974, he opened its permanent base in the Bouffes du Nord Theatre in Paris, overseeing numerous productions in French and English.
  • He has also directed several opera productions in iconic venues such as Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
  • His film credits also include Lord of the Flies in 1963, Marat/Sade in 1967 and 1989's The Mahabharata.
  • In 1951, he married the actress Natasha Parry, with whom he has a son Simon, a director and writer, and a daughter, Irina, an actress and director.
  • He was awarded a CBE in 1965.

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