Saturday, February 28, 2015

Theatre: Ubu and the Truth Commission (★★★)

Handspring Puppet Company
Conceived and directed by William Kentridge
Written by Jane Taylor
Puppets and sets designed by Adrian Kohler
Cast: Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa
Puppeteers: Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti and Mongi Mthombeni

Heath Ledger Theatre
24 – 28 February

Ubu and the Truth Commission was an important marker in both South Africa’s theatre and its wider history.
It was a cry of outrage at the ease with which many of the perpetrators of the worst crimes of Apartheid were allowed to use edited versions of the truth and smooth, practiced contrition to sidestep the consequences of their vile activities.
It reminded us that generals fight from behind; that, more often than not, the hand that signs the paper escapes the manacles that ultimately shackle those of the instruments of its policies. 
The difficulty in approaching Ubu now, almost two decades later, is that its historical context theatrically, Alfred Jarry’s nineteenth century proto-absurdist Ubu plays, honed by their surrealist and Brechtian successors, now blurs its actual historical context, making it hard to know exactly what we are watching, and to what purpose.

So Ubu remains most effective – and that is very effective indeed – when it shows us the real events of this period in South African history; newsreel footage and stark graphics of the atrocious Apartheid regime, and the chilling, heartbreaking testimony of its victims at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; when, in effect, it is verbatim theatre.
These are cold, hard historical facts that we need to know and be reminded of. In 1998, when Ubu was first staged, they had the overwhelming immediacy of today’s newspaper. William Kentridge, the celebrated South African artist who conceived and directed Ubu for the Handspring Puppet Company, gave Jane Taylor’s text an impact that must have been extraordinary at the time.

The staging of the production is impressive. Kentridge’s images have stood the test of time, as have Handspring’s puppets. The performances of Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa, as the hideous, all-too-human Pa and Ma Ubu, and the pupeteering of Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti and Mongi Mthombeni as the three-headed attack dog Brutus and the cynical, paper-shredding crocodile Niles, have a dangerous energy and dark-as-pitch humour that fuel the machine of hypocrisy and venality that drives the play, as it drove the inhumanity Ubu and the Truth Commission sought to expose and excoriate.
It's impact is now blurred, and disconnected, but this is more the result of the rust of time than any intrinsic flaw in either the work or this production.

My colleague Ron Banks had this to say in his review in The West Australian

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