Ubu and the Truth Commission

Animation and direction by William Kentridge, puppets by Handspring, script by Jane Taylor

Handspring Puppet Company

Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

From 28 August 2014 to 30 August 2014

Rating: ****

Review by Vera Liber

Juxtapose Truth with Ubu and you have a cynical satire built on top of an absurdist one. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 surreal scatological Ubu Roi set alongside the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is Brechtian comment enough. It’s just too easy, if irresistible. Ubu, conscripted yet again, a parodic man for all seasons...

Add to that newsreels, police brutality and cover-up, silent screen captions, visual jokes, hand-drawn black on white / white on black animation of grotesque crimes, Handspring puppets, puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni, Mandiseli Maseti, and Ma and Pa Ubu personified by Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar in Hogarthian incarnation, and you have the makings of a captivating ninety-minute multimedia show.

Jane Taylor’s play, drawing on the historical archives of the TRC hearings, was first seen at the Laboratory in Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in 1997. Xhosa testimony, translation inaudible at times from the closed witness box—is this deliberate, the unheard voices, or is the venue simply too big—exposes the moral corruption at the heart of the State of South Africa.

Taylor’s tactful view is that “The TRC is unquestionably a monumental process, the consequences of which will take years to unravel. For all its pervasive weight, however, it infiltrates our culture asymmetrically, unevenly across multiple sectors.” ‘Truth distortion and proportion’, as Pa Ubu puts it.

Nearly twenty years later, Ubu and the Truth Commission still holds water, visibility and invisibility little changed since apartheid. Was justice seen to be done, was there reconciliation? This apposite play suggests not.

President P W Botha’s bullish intransigence is filtered through head of secret police Pa Ubu. Does he apologise? No, he goes on the attack. "This is my country." Arrogant, shameless, but "I am not a monster".

UBU TELLS THE TRUTH (a caption): he knew nothing: he was only doing his job. ‘It wasn’t personal’. The best bit for me is when the microphones twist and turn away from his corroding lies. He dodges their assault.

We listen to potty-mouthed Ubu slipping in couplets and puns, to his egregious self-justification. Bloody bawdy villainy, horror and humour side by side… How can we possibly laugh at this man? The message is clear.

A pernicious Jacobean villain ("we must keep our own counsel"), who laughs at "gallons of blood and tears to wash the walls clean", but "the blood of the lamb will set me free". Amnestied, he is free to sail off with his equally monstrous wife into the sunset.

But I’m starting at the end. William Kentridge is my reason for seeing this production. An admirer of his fertile mind and allegorical multi-media work—I am not me, the horse is not mine at the Tate Modern Tanks in 2012/3, Refuse the Hour / La Négation du temps at the 2012 Avignon Festival, Woyzek in the Highveld with the Handspring Puppet Company at the Barbican in 2011, I couldn’t wait to see this.

For Ubu he teams up with Handspring again: a puppet vulture passing comment from a perch at the side ("more killers than saints have dined with princes"), Brutus, Pa’s backing band, the three-headed hound from hell, Niles the crocodile that devours ‘unsavoury’ files, and the poor people, their fashioned faces etched with dignity and stoicism, bearing witness to horrific crimes, as Kentridge’s animation strips scroll across the back.

Strips that depict a shape-shifting dancing tripod camera, a watchful Buñuelesque eye, body parts, skulls and bones, gruesome murder, blood baths, parcel bombs, endless coffins and crosses, European expressionism and Goya horror shows obvious influences.

Full-bodied flatulent greedy Ma Ubu, alter ego thin cat on screen, thinks Pa’s late nights are spent with some floosy, why else all those showers? Of course, he is washing off the bloody shitty stench of his victims. "I was an agent of the state. I had agency."

Pa conceals and plants incriminating evidence on his ‘faithful’ dogs, Ma finds more in the bag belly of her crocodile, and loves all the attention that the TRC brings—no shame. Her eulogistic evidence almost sinks her husband. He loved working with his hands. Liked a spade. Remember the sjambok.

The son of lawyers, of Sir Sydney Kentridge who worked on many apartheid cases, representing Stephen Biko’s family at the inquest on his death, William uses his father’s suitcase as the body of Brutus—lawyer’s baggage… Metaphors within metaphors…