How far would you go to avoid the truth? Pa Ubu goes spectacularly far, to the extent that ‘truth’ becomes farcically undermined as a concept in late 90s South Africa where this story is told. Ubu and the Truth Commission confronts with burning satire the avoidance tactics of an imbecilic white General – Ubu – whose atrocities under apartheid are beginning to surface with the looming Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The truth of the story emerges from a metaphorical affair. Ma Ubu smells the stink of treachery on her husband and associates it with marital infidelity, rather than national treachery. Originally created for the stage by writer Jane Taylor and Handspring Puppet Company with animated artwork by South African artist William Kentridge in 1997, the stark violence, shameless aversion of truth telling, and greed have all been observed as poignantly contemporary – nearly twenty years after the play was first produced.
The similar rhythms of storytelling and performance in the TRC, played out to the world’s media, have been long associated with reactionary political theatre and state of the nation plays in South Africa. “The Commission itself is theatre,” Kentridge once wrote, “or at any rate a kind of ur-theatre.” This is perhaps why the more naturalist scenes of verbatim TRC testimonies are the most moving moments of the production. Suddenly from the raucous family drama between Ma (Busi Zokufa) and Pa (Dawid Minaar) Ubu, the pace slows into gripping and heartbreaking confessions – mothers and grandfathers who have witnessed young family members burning alive or tortured before them. These are performed by beautifully crafted, wooden puppets each controlled by two puppeteers – you see their breaths, their sighs and their heartbreak – in Afrikaans and translated into English. The displacement of storytelling onto puppets somehow makes the effect of their trauma stronger. As these public intersessions are cast into the private lives of Ma and Pa and recur throughout the play, the crossovers between witnesses and translators’ voices become more frequent, heightening the intensity of their stories.
Just as these quieter moments shine through the mess and stench of death surrounding the schemes of Ubu, so too do photographic glimpses provide a shocking contrast to Kentridge’s black and white, sketchy animations. These photographs of bodies and the devastations of apartheid ring of real truth amidst the tragicomic pandering and violent betrayals of the central couple. Oddly beautiful, comic moments emerge in the animations too – like a simpering, stretching cat who acts as a parody of Ma Ubu, while she dreams of love and money. Vicious animated commentaries also appear. The three Brutus’, who made up a three-headed dog as Ubu’s chorus of cronies, are eventually hung with dogs bowls as nooses. Skulls and bones litter the drawings, and a widening eye bulges grossly as though a derided and incapacitated Eye of Sauron, or indeed, Big Brother. But this eye is not all-seeing; all truth here is not quite in authority’s sight. That is, except to the authority of the audience, who thus become like co-conspirators as Ubu reveals his plots and his past.
There are times amidst the farce that the story becomes a little lost and a little fractured. A mechanical vulture – that eponymous harbinger of death – cries and squawks in the corner of the stage for no apparent narratorial reason except to punctuate the cacophony of competing voices. This kind of absurdity, along with the whirligig of lies and political parallels, chaos and historical references, I sometimes find hard to keep up with. But the multimedia conferral of private mourning and public hearings, personal tales and national narratives, is an effective and uncomfortably entertaining presentation of the violence and hurt that continue to beset a nation.
UBU and the Truth Commission is playing at the Print Room until 7 November. For more information and tickets, see the Print Room website.