Review: Ubu and the Truth Commission

Busi Zokufa as Ma Ubu with animation by William Kentridge on screen behind her.
Busi Zokufa as Ma Ubu with animation by William Kentridge on screen behind her.

This week, almost 20 years on Ubu and the Truth Commission returned to the Market Theatre where it premiered in 1997. This work is a collaboration by the celebrated William Kentridge, the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor; presented by the Market Theatre and Windybrow Theatre this show runs till 11 September 2016.

This piece of theatre uses both live actors, animations by William Kentridge and puppetry by the Handspring Puppet Company to tell a fictional story that contains real testimony from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Dawid Minnaar plays a vicious Apartheid General, Pa Ubu, a comical character who comes across as an oaf, even at the darkest moments in this production where he heads off into the townships with his dogs of war to wreak havoc on the oppressed masses. Busisiwe Zokufa plays his at times comical wife, Ma Ubu, who suspects Pa Ubu of infidelity because of his habit of disappearing at night and returning in the morning to take a shower. She is initially shocked to find out what his transgressions really are, but relieved that he is protecting her from the uprising or “swart gevaar”. This makes her complicit in his bloodthirsty attacks.

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Both actors perform these roles well, switching from comedic exaggeration to sombre, and  even deadpan for TRC translations. Both played these roles in the original production 20 years ago, roles revived when this production was restaged for international touring which began a few years ago.

The actors and puppets are alternately serious and funny, humour breaking from the horrors revealed through actual TRC testimonies. The brilliantly crafted Handspring puppets include a person, a vulture, a crocodile whose leather stomach is used to hide and destroy evidence of atrocities, and a three headed dogs of war. The puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti voice and manipulate the puppets through the serious testimonies as well as the much needed and exaggerated comic relief.

Ubu and the Truth Commission runs at The Market Theatre till 11 September 2016
Ubu and the Truth Commission runs at The Market Theatre till 11 September 2016

William Kentridge who conceived this production, and directed it, also created all the illustrations and animations that portray many of the atrocities committed by Pa Ubu and his dogs of war. These animations drive home the viciousness and inhumanity of the attacks on people committed in the name of apartheid, and through much of this production contrast the often over the top portrayals of Ma and Pa Ubu. The music accompanying these animations was composed by Brendan Jury and Warrick Sony.

It is hard to say whether this story is timeless or tired, but this work raises questions about the amnesty granted to many who testified to their atrocities without any remorse, and how the TRC contributed to a peaceful transition to democracy, in a way that ultimately favoured the perpetrators over the victims. 20 years on, we are still dealing with the repercussions, knowing well that alternatives may have resulted in bloodshed and violence.

This production reminded me very much of the dark violence of a Punch & Judy show, where comedy, exaggeration and puppetry make the violence digestible.

Etienne Shardlow writes in his capacity as a wholly unqualified person who enjoys the theatre and music.

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