Ubu and the Truth Commission is now one of the South African theatre classics. Written by Jane Taylor and directed by William Kentridge, this play was first performed in 1997 at The Market Theatre’s Laboratory. In 2016, nearly twenty years later, it is making a come-back at the John Kani Auditorium at The Market Theatre. The work is as powerful as it was the first time.
The complex issue of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may need some pre-performance reading if one is not familiar with the historical and political importance of the event. It is vital to note that while the excesses of the police in the Apartheid era were not entirely a secret to the general population, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s revelations shocked the general population both at home and abroad. There were few people who were not outraged by the atrocities which were being spoken about. It was, and still is, a painful, festering wound on the psyche of the new South African nation.
A little bit of theatre history is needed in order to fully grasp the title and the theatricality of the work. In 1896 a French playwright, Alfred Jarry, wrote a play entitled Ubu Roi (King Ubu or more crudely King Turd). It was, according to Wikipedia, “a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms and conventions.” It opened and closed on the same night. Not a financial success but it did mark a changing point for 20th century theatre. Jarry wrote two more plays in the Ubu series, but neither of them was performed in his lifetime.
Now one can get to the play which is produced by the Handspring Puppet Company and combines puppetry (controlled by three puppeteers – Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni, Mandiseli Maseti) with two live actors, Busisiwe Busi Zokufa (Ma Ubu) and Dawid Minnaar (Pa Ubu). The puppets were created by Adrian Kohler. The film animation is by William Kentridge himself, as is the set design (together with Adrian Kohler), lighting is by Wesley France, music by Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury, while the choreography is by Robyn Orlin.
The technical skill of this work is what allows its metaphors to reach out and touch the audience. My favourite is the shower scene where Pa Ubu, like Lady Macbeth centuries before him, tries to rid himself of the stench of his guilty conscience. Three puppets, a vulture, a paper shredding crocodile and a three-headed dog, are employed to portray various themes, with other puppets being used to portray the witnesses at the TRC. If you want to know more about these before you go and see this production, I refer you to the Wikipedia article. It is not necessary for you to do this reading as these themes become self-evident as the play unfolds, but it will not spoil the play either.
All round, the work has drawn much well-deserved critical acclaim over its lifespan, including the three years since its revival where it has been touring round the world.
This work needs to be seen for two reasons. 1. It is a fine and worthy work to go and see. Historically and politically important, it is created by a team of exceptionally talented artists, each specialists in their field. 2. It is now an important theatre classic, not only in South Africa, but world wide, and it still uses many of the original production’s people. Future revivals will probably not have the same privilege.
It is not an easy work to deal with emotionally, and many people may need to debrief to friends and family at the end. High school audiences will certainly need debriefing by teachers before going home. The work will probably spark much debate about the success or otherwise (strengths and weaknesses) of the Truth and Reconciliation process headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and what we, as a nation, have achieved since then.
The Market Theatre is hosting this production for a very short season only. The run will end on 11 September 2016. Do not miss it.