Summary of Ubu and the Truth Commission by the Handspring Puppet Company
The play is based on the hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on a 19th century licentious slob – Ubu Roi – created in 1888 by the French playwright, Alfred Jarry, when he was still a student. In this production Ubu is a policeman for whom torture, murder, sex and food are all variations of a single gross appetite.
The difference between Taylor’s play and Jarry’s is that Jarry never focusses on Ubu’s victims whereas Taylor does. Ubu’s three henchmen are played by the puppet of a three-headed dog named Brutus, each head manipulated by its own puppeteer, each head representing a part of the South African government – a soldier, a general and a politician – involved in terrorizing the population. Ma Ubu has a crocodile bag named Niles that is also a crocodile puppet with one manipulator. Pa and Ma Ubu’s house pet, fittingly enough, is a puppet vulture. During the course of the play’s 90 minutes, Taylor and director William Kentridge mix the acting of Minnaar and Zokufa, on their own and with the puppets, with animated film by Kentridge behind them that depicts Ubu committing his crimes. When Ubu returns home after one of his outings smelling of blood and gunpowder, he mimes taking a shower in a clear glass shower stall while on screen the film shows us skulls, body parts and weapons washing off him. Sometimes, especially near the end, the chalk-like drawings shift suddenly into documentary footage of crime scenes and riots. In one of the most effective scenes of the film, Kentridge has us peer into one window after another to see people being tortured or murdered in various ways, only to pull back his camera to show us that all these activities are happening simultaneously in an enormous building.