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Summary of Ubu and the Truth Commission by the Handspring Puppet Company

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Ubu and the Truth Commission combines puppetry, performance by live actors, music, animation and documentary footage

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.

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In Ubu and the Truth Commission, Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) is concerned that Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) is out every night. She assumes that he is being unfaithful to her with other women. In reality, he is the leader of one of the government’s death squads who goes about killing innocent people and blowing up property

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.

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Usually, “Ubu and the Truth Commission” has been performed worldwide since its inception. “When the show was going to be resuscitated for the anniversary of South Africa’s independence two years ago,” says Taylor, “there was some speculation that we might rewrite the piece. But we decided if we rewrote it, we’d be second-guessing ourselves about what the piece might have meant and falsify the inherent dignity of the work. It made more sense to leave the piece as it was.

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