South African play Ubu and the Truth Commission set for 2014 Edinburgh International Festival
Director William Kentridge and team behind War Horse revive play to commemorate twenty years of post-Apartheid South Africa
This article is from 2014.
Yasmin Sulaiman speaks with the creative minds behind Ubu and the Truth Commission to discuss a universal play that goes way beyond its post-Apartheid origins
The trial of Oscar Pistorius may go down as one of the biggest media spectacles in South African history. But 18 years ago – before 24-hour news and social media – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created its own fair share of journalistic frenzy. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission was set up as a channel for both victims and perpetrators to publicly give witness to Apartheid-era violence and it’s often held up as a foundational stage in the building of a democratic South Africa.
That event also inspired the acclaimed play Ubu and the Truth Commission, which is being revived in 2014 to mark 20 years since the end of Apartheid. First performed in 1997 at Johannesburg’s world-famous Market Theatre, the play’s director is William Kentridge (one of South Africa’s most globally renowned artists) and features figures created by the Handspring Puppet Company, better known today for their work on the widely adored War Horse.
‘When we originally made the piece, opinions hadn’t yet been formed about the Truth Commission,’ explains Adrian Kohler, co-founder of Handspring and Ubu’s puppet designer. ‘But in reviving the play, we are able to compare it with what the country is like almost 20 years into democracy and how the promise of the Truth Commission has or hasn’t been fulfilled.’
‘The play refers specifically to Apartheid,’ adds Kentridge, ‘but in the past 20 years, there’s been no shortage of stories about corruption, of people getting away with crimes, and the kind of pact with the devil which is the basis for this performance.’
This year’s production is essentially the same as the original, though two minutes have been shaved off the running time. Jane Taylor’s script hasn’t changed and even its original two actors – Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar – are back on board as Ma and Pa Ubu. Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s surrealist classic Ubu Roi (which famously caused a riot after its 1896 Paris premiere), this version deliberately contrasts the grotesque against Kentridge’s animations, with documentary footage and verbatim testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission enacted by puppets.
‘Using the puppets as witnesses was a big debate in the beginning,’ Kohler says. ‘Because we were using verbatim transcripts from the original Truth Commission, these were very particular, very personal stories that people were recounting. To put the verbatim testimonies of the Truth Commission into the mouths of puppets seemed to be a possible way to retain the original story’s dignity. The puppet is neutral; it’s not somebody pretending to be another character or a real person. It’s built only to be that witness.’
The play has toured the world but its references remain particularly South African. ‘We made it very specifically local, so there are a number of images that will only make sense to a South African,’ says Kentridge. ‘You see a pig’s head, for example, with a pair of earphones on. Then there’s an explosion and you see the damaged pig’s head. If you’re outside South Africa, it’s a generalised image of violence. But in South Africa, you’ll know of the specific event in which the security police sent a letter bomb to an activist in the form of headphones so that when he switched them on, it would blow his head off. But they tested it first on a pig’s head, with before-and-after photographs of the test presented at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In that sense, most of the material in the play is direct reportage.’
But despite this specificity, Ubu and the Truth Commission can’t escape its universal appeal. ‘When we did the production initially,’ explains Kentridge, ‘people said to us, “this will make sense in South Africa but it won’t make any sense in Europe”. But when we took the production to Weimar [in former East Germany], they told us this piece is perfect because all the evidence in the Stasi files was just coming out but that it wouldn’t work elsewhere in Europe. Then we took it to Switzerland where we were told, “you know we have all the stories about Nazi gold being held in Swiss banks and those facts are just starting to come out”. They also said it wouldn’t work anywhere else. And then we went to France and it was the same thing, regarding questions of collaboration and France’s hidden history coming out into the open. So we discovered that many different countries had similar questions and were taking account of the most despicable parts of their history, acknowledging them and trying to come to terms with them.’
Whether Ubu and the Truth Commission still resonates will be clear when the revival is performed in South Africa and at the EIF. Certainly, both Kentridge and Kohler seem very pleased to be working together again: Kentridge calls War Horse ‘one of the great milestones of puppetry’, while Kohler lauds Kentridge’s brilliant animations and direction on Ubu.
Like Kentridge, Kohler is keenly aware of the play’s global allure. ‘The further we get from the original South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the more we understand that many countries have gone through the kind of difficulties that South Africa has experienced. In South America and in Eastern Europe, people have come up to us and said, “I can’t believe that this piece isn’t about our country”. And so the production represents the opportunity for witnesses to speak out against atrocities committed by a government that is supposed to protect them. I think that’s what resonates down the years: it seems less specifically about South Africa now, and more about the way innocent people are caught up in the machinations of the state.’
Ubu and the Truth Commission, Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 28–30 Aug, 8pm; 30 Aug, 2.30pm, £10–£32.