Ubu and the Truth Commission

Handspring Puppet Company, Jane Taylor and William Kentridge
Handspring Puppet Company
Print Room at the Coronet, Notting Hill

Dawid Minaar Credit: Luke Younge
Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minaar Credit: Luke Younge
The Dogs of War Credit: Luke Younge

It is not easy to take a deeply solemn subject and play it for laughs, while paying due respect.

That is what Handspring has attempted by bolting Alfred Jarry's ubiquitous Ubu on to the horrors of Apartheid South Africa and the subsequent attempts to achieve closure through the efforts of that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For those that know the name but can’t remember why, this is the South African puppet company led by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, that created the stage version of War Horse and, in doing so, has delighted literally millions around the world and helped to buoy up the finances of the National Theatre throughout most of the last decade.

Ubu and the Truth Commission was first seen in 1997, when the subject matter was still absolutely fresh in the minds of the world and particularly South Africans of every race and creed.

It mingles hard-edged visions of its central characters with shocking testimony delivered by puppets representing those who lost loved ones during the country’s darkest days.

Under the direction of William Kentridge, this ambitious 90-minute production is a collage that seemingly has set itself the task of using every theatrical style known to man.

Inevitably, there is straight acting to depict a combination of satire and verbatim drama. That is supplemented by Handspring's incomparable articulated puppets, cartoon and other film work including stomach-churning depictions of the consequences of racial discrimination and warfare, physical acting, song and dance, shadow play, mime and even more.

This leads to a breathless evening that never allows the audience to settle and threatens to dilute a terrifyingly powerful message about man's inhumanity to man.

In the forefront of the presentation are Dawid Minaar, energetically playing Pa Ubu, a former soldier who only did what he was told however murderous the orders might be, and Busi Zokufa in the role of his rebellious, jealous wife.

On one level, they are Jarry's warring spouses; on another, the brutal white and the brutalised black but in addition the duo symbolically represents the ascendant Boer in decline and Mother Africa waiting to rise to power.

The central actors do well to hold their own in the company of puppets representing inter alia Ubu's henchmen: the drooling dogs of war, monsters and a lovable vulture waiting to pick over our monstrous anti-hero's evil bones.

Ubu and the Truth Commission is a brave attempt to address South Africa's past and its efforts to create a more hopeful future. There is much to commend but the over-ambitious production has a tendency to dilute its impact and would benefit from a harsh dramaturg willing to cut and mould in order to create a stronger, more coherent whole.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher