REVIEW – Ubu and the Truth Commission (Edinburgh International Festival)


By Danielle Farrow

At the end of the 19th century, Alfred Jarry’s satirical Ubu Roi caused consternation with its protagonist, influenced by Macbeth, but here a grotesque figure steeped in abuses of power and bureaucracy, portrayed with crude words and gestures. At the end of the 20th century, Jane Taylor meshed Jarry’s Ubu with testimony from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create Ubu and the Truth Commission, which, under the direction of artist William Kentridge, became a multimedia piece involving puppets from Handspring Puppet Company (now famous for War Horse). This revival marks the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.

‘Ma’ Ubu (Busi Zokufa) thinks ‘Pa’ Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) is being unfaithful, but he has really been perpetrating atrocities the Truth Commission is examining. Only Ma and Pa are portrayed in person by actors; other characters – witnesses at the Commission and partners to Pa – are puppets manipulated by three performers. The horrors of Pa’s actions – body parts, scenes of torture and murder – are background screened through intriguing animated film, photographs and clips of documentaries about apartheid. The recurring character of a camera on a tripod seems representative of Pa Ubu, while a cat symbolises Ma. There is, though, what appears to be another version of Ubu, based on Jarry’s own woodcut of his character. This gross, triangular figure with a swirling spiral on his corpulent belly steps out of Pa’s screen nightmares onto the stage to advise him to find a scapegoat. This character also appears in the animations, so the identity of Pa Ubu as the tripod character becomes a little unclear, but there is a feeling that both represent him.

The advice to blame another is a third option that faces Pa as he struggles with his wife’s suspicions, the loss of his position in the previous regime and the spectre of the investigations into atrocities. Previously, Pa has been considering the options of conceal or reveal. The latter would mean standing before the Truth Commission and telling all, as advised by Niles, a crocodile puppet. This puppet and the three-headed dog Brutus, representing the heads of diplomacy, war and agency, have wonderful lines that pun on what they are, do or are used for, and beautifully satirise tactics for evading responsibility, while a wooden vulture surveys all throughout. The set is furniture on wheels: wooden table and chairs, an armchair and a booth that serves as both shower and translation hub.

The fun of the piece lies in the infantile humour of the squabbling pair, with farts and other scatological gags, matched with the satirical bite of the animal puppets, while thought-provocation comes in the evasive tactics and continued abuse of the system that the Ubus reflect. There is little in the Brechtian style to evoke emotional response – despite testimonies of horrific death and mutilation – and rare Commission’s responses are simply presented rather than examined.

Ubu and the Truth Commission uses multi-media well in its look at abuse of power, with particular reference to South Africa’s apartheid, but its energy is not always as entertaining as such aspects seek to be, while the dark elements stimulate thought without close examination. It is intriguing without being satisfying – but intriguing nonetheless.

28-30 August, 20:00 (21:30); matinee 30 August, 14:30 (16:00) @ Royal Lyceum

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