Truth is far more frightening than fiction, certainly in this battle-scarred country.
In the powerful play Ubu and the Truth Commission, fact and fiction blend through an imaginative mix of styles, with actors, puppets from Handspring Puppet Company, animation by William Kentridge, and genuine stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC). It’s not lightweight viewing, but it’s worth the journey.
One moment we’re disturbed yet deliberately steered towards amusement by the comically presented actions of a vicious apartheid general. He’s a clownish oaf played by Dawid Minnaar in unflattering underwear. His actions are gregarious and exaggerated, making him a buffoon at times. The Kentridge animations on a large screen behind him are playful as he annoys and cajoles his wife Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa).
Even when the general sets off with his bloodthirsty dogs of war into the township at night, he’s still a silly and petulant bloke.
Then the mood changes entirely and shockingly as a small puppet character stands quietly and speaks. A translator delivers a real extract from the TRC, and nobody’s laughing any more.
The Kentridge drawings morph from benign to savage – prisoners being tortured, flung from windows and savaged by dogs. Film clips or photographs from the times augment the story.
Ubu is an excellent yet uncomfortable play in several ways. I initially found the exaggerated actions of the two humans a little grating, and it took my unartistic brain a while to settle into the Kentridge animations.
Then you realise how the buffoonery is deliberately highlighting the absolute horror of the real stories picked out from the TRC. Ubu and his ilk may be ridiculed, but look at the damage they caused; the broken bodies and broken lives they left behind.
A thoughtful touch is that Ma Ubu is black, and the TRC snippets feature black-on-black violence too, so it’s not just whites being vilified. Initially Ma Ubu is convinced that her husband is philandering with a mistress when he goes out at night and comes home to shower every morning. When she discovers the truth, she’s relieved that he is protecting her from the black uprising, making her complicit in the crimes.
The ingenious stage design by Adrian Kohler and Kentridge has Ubu stepping into a shower cubicle while the animations show him sloughing off bones and severed limbs with his murderous hands. Then the cubicle becomes the translation booth, with somebody stepping inside to read the harrowing story being told by a broken parent.
The puppets are excellent, with a crocodile playing the political master. A knowing smile, a bloodthirsty appetite and a cast-iron stomach to conceal the evidence.
Playwright Jane Taylor has Ubu speak with a poetry that belies his brutality. Her script also weaves in extremely clever wordplays over dinner, when guilt begins to bite.
Ubu premiered at the Market Theatre in 1997 and was revived for the Edinburgh Festival to mark our 20th anniversary of democracy. Surprisingly it doesn’t feel dated, and still packs a hell of a punch.
Zokufa and Minnaar are back in the roles they first played almost 20 years ago, and both are excellent. Minaar plays his complex character beautifully, with exuberance, guilt and righteousness swirling in equal measure.
Ubu and his puppet dogs, brilliantly controlled by Mongi Mthombeni, Mandiseli Maseti and Gabriel Marchand, discuss the TRC hearings and decide to stick together in silence. Ubu rehearses an expression of remorse, and fails to stifle the smirks. Now the play moves into judgmental territory, showing how some were made scapegoats, many villains were let off lightly, and that remorse is a very malleable emotion. DM
Ubu and the Truth Commission runs at the Market Theatre until September 11.
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