Ubu and the Truth Commission @ Edinburgh International Festival
Based on the revelations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the harrowing atrocities committed by the South African apartheid regime, this multimedia show directed by William Kentridge, written by Jane Taylor and performed by Handspring Puppet Theatre company, famous for their puppetry in War Horse, the atrocities are mediated through a knockabout, scatalogical humour conveyed by terrific puppetry, animations and above all, the burlesque buffoonery of Pa Ubu and his wife, Ma Ubu, reminiscent of Punch and Judy, played by humans and transported to the African soil.
‘Pschitt’ is the first word by Pa Ubu as he bursts onto the scene, ‘merdre’ (the extra ‘r’ is intentional), being the first word of the work Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, from which the character of Pa Ubu is taken. First performed in 1896 it caused outrage, and was the first, some claim, piece of Absurd or Surrealist Theatre. Pa Ubu is the anti-hero, the Satan who is much more interesting than the angels, a man responsible for torture and murder yet so self-important, greedy, and infantile, it's hard not to laugh at him. Dawid Minnaar strutting about the stage in underpants and vest is amusing though Minnaar maintains an uncomfortable awareness of his sinister, grim side.
Ma Ubu is portrayed by Busi Zokufa who, with her pointed turban and flowing robe, opening to reveal corset, teetering about on high-heeled pom-pom slippers, is a joy to watch. Her voice veers from growls to high-pitched squeals as she gets the better of her bullying but cowardly husband. Aware of an unusual smell about him (blood and dynamite) on return from late nights out she believes he has a mistress. Only when she finds out the truth, she is relieved, since as she says, he is only protecting her – one example of the shocking black humour of this play.
Animations on a screen at the back of the stage by director and visual artist William Kentridge also use Jarry’s original woodcut of Ubu as an obese pear-shape with a spiral on his stomach, drawn in charcoal or black paint in German Expressionist style. The comic-strip format is particularly effective when Pa Ubu takes a shower after a night out, with what he is washing away shown on the screen: scissors, cut-off hands and more.
Later more graphic cartoons are shown and photo stills of actual dead bodies. But these are interspersed with the on-stage comedy or the engaging puppets, a brilliant device for creating distance and ensuring the play does not descend into a pornography of violence. There’s a squawking vulture whose sardonic comments are displayed on the screen. Pa Ubu’s henchman, the three-headed dog, is manipulated expertly by two visible puppeteers, the three heads moving in a mock-scary ballet, one rising between Pa’s legs for obscene effect; Niles the crocodile appears to smile slyly such is the skill of his one manipulator. Niles is Pa’s shredder and used to eat incriminatory evidence.
Kentridge’s decision not to use human actors for the witnesses and victims of the apartheid is a fine one. The puppets with sensitively carved wooden faces, have a gravity about them which dignifies their appalling stories, first stated in a South African language, and then repeated in English (cleverly using Pa Ubu’s glass shower cubicle as the interpreter’s booth, with the shower head as the microphone).
Pa and Ma sail away into the sunshine at the end, if not forgiven and absolved, scot free, which of course happened at the real Commission, a sobering thought to leave the theatre with. Originally performed in 1997, the play's impact must surely have been far stronger then, but unfortunately, atrocities continue throughout the world and it still is relevant. It's a shame that the impact of this production is weakened by the lack of voice projection by most of the performers, apart from Pa Ubu himself. But it is still well worth going to see this hilarious and important production, not least because puppetry used in plays for adults has at last been recognised in Britain.