Truthfully, a groundbreaking show

James Ryan Gobuty

Staff Writer

In 1995, after decades of apartheid rule, South Africa formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or the TRC), helmed by the venerable Desmond Tutu, to reveal the atrocities that the country had experienced and to allow the country to move into a new phase of peace and equality. The TRC proved to be “exemplary civic theatre” and according to director William Kentridge, “a public hearing of private griefs, which are absorbed into the body politic as part of a deeper understanding of how the society arrived at its present position.”

Ubu and the Truth Commission is a masterful reimagining of Alfred Jarry’s classic character Ubu in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. The play uses every theatrical tool imaginable  acting, puppetry, song, dance, and animation to expose every angle of the apartheid era, both the tragedies and the farces. This collaboration between director and animator William Kentridge, scholar and playwright Jane Taylor, and the renowned Handspring Puppet Company is both a testament to interdisciplinary theatre in particular, and to socially conscious theatre in general. 

Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar), donning a less than regal set of white shirt and briefs, is a leading general in the apartheid era military who has dedicated his life to terrorizing the black population in the townships with his faithful sidekick, the three headed dog Brutus, and now finds himself in a new era where his kind is put on trial. In his efforts to keep his activities secret, Pa Ubu allows his wife Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) to think he is off having affairs with other women, which fuels the often hilarious fights between the two. As Pa becomes more and more haunted by the blood on his hands, and the possibility of having to admit all his sins to the nation, he uses the crocodile Niles to destroy all of the incriminating evidence. Unfortunately for him, Niles is one part crocodile and one part handbag, allowing Ma to have a chance to take a peak.

Aside from the Ubu plot, the play also presents testimonials from the TRC, wherein Handspring’s classic bunraku puppets represent the victims describing the real horrors that befell that population. All of the testimonials are presented in the Xhosa language, with a translator part doubled by either Ma or one of the puppeteers. These stark, chilling scenes form the counterbalance to the Ubu scenes, always grounding the production in the blood and torture that was daily life for so many, for so long. It’s quite breathtaking how the bunraku puppets can emote so intensely and how that contrasts to the cold institutional voice of the translators. 

William Kentridge’s animation forms the crucial third layer of the show – the theatre of Pa Ubu’s mind. Replete with symbols, like an all-seeing eye morphing suddenly into a camera, these snap shots into Pa’s psyche show the effects that a life as a cold-blooded killer can have on a person’s mind. These scenes, combined with the documentary footage used, show how even the cruelest of people is broken by the atrocities they commit. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the most important puppet in this show: the Vulture. Standing stationary downstage left, this puppet serves as a one bird Greek chorus for the entire show, all while never uttering a word. Whenever the Vulture squawks a witty pun commenting on the scene, it is projected on the screen, a nod to the placards used by the anti-realist master Bertolt Brecht. Besides being a small but crucial element of the play, the Vulture is also beautifully crafted and was marvelled at by every member of the audience.

Ubu and the Truth Commission is a very special play because it can be so many things at once. It is an indictment of a bygone era of misery and torture and an analysis of the consequences of the idea of reconciliation. It is an example of how to keep the history of theatre alive, while also innovating the form. It is a quintessential example of how collaboration enriches theatre and how theatre enriches our understanding of the world. Ubu and the Truth Commission represents the best of groundbreaking theatre and it is more than welcome on the Toronto stage.

Ubu and the Truth Commission is playing as part of the Spotlight South Africa festival at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs space until April 19. The festival continues until April 25. Tickets for Ubu and the Truth Commission and the other festival plays can be purchased online at canadianstage.com.