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Editorial

Ubu and the Truth Commission

by Jean Schiffman

Cal Performances presents South African Handspring Puppet Company’s multimedia tragicomedy.

In 1896, French playwright Alfred Jarry’s pre-Absurdist play “Ubu Roi” opened in Paris with an obscenity: Merdre! The show closed after one performance—the audience, outraged by the bizarre and violent comedy, having shouted and thrown chairs.

In Berkeley this month, the South African Handspring Puppet Company’s “Ubu and the Truth Commission” also opens with a curse, this one eccentrically misspelled: Pschitt!

From there, the 90-minute, multimedia tragicomedy—a mix of people, puppets, animation, music and documentary material—borrows two of Jarry’s characters, the insanely avaricious and amoral King Ubu and his scheming wife (who has been described as a scatological send-up of Lady Macbeth), and moves the action from medieval Poland to South Africa to follow the proceedings of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In 1996, at the end of apartheid, the Commission—appointed by Nelson Mandela and headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu—held hearings to expose the human rights violations perpetrated by the government between 1960 and 1993. It was empowered to offer both reparations to victims and amnesty to political criminals who confessed fully and truthfully.

At the time of the hearings, Jane Taylor, a South African scholar and writer, began writing “Ubu and the Truth Commission” for director William Kentridge and Handspring, an internationally renowned Cape Town company founded in 1981 by a group of art students, including the group’s current artistic director and puppet designer Adrian Kohler. It premiered in South Africa in 1997. In it, the title character (played by Dawid Minaar) is a slob of a policeman in the apartheid era, who, like Jarry’s demented faux-monarch, revels in torture, sex, food and murder. His language, packed with puns and profanities, is a sharp contrast to the language of the witnesses, which is mostly transcribed from the Commission’s actual public transcripts, translated from such languages as Zulu.

And like Jarry’s depiction of Ubu’s wife, in Handspring’s version (with the character played by Busi Zokufa), she suspects her husband of infidelity and also encourages his gruesome activities.

In full view, puppeteers—mostly two apiece—manipulate the puppets; the human countenances express the emotions that the doll-like wooden faces cannot. It is the puppets, representing both survivors and perpetrators of the hated regime, who testify. Pa Ubu’s helpful assistant is a three-headed dog puppet, Brutus, its body constructed from an old briefcase; each head has an individual character (foot soldier, general, politician) and is controlled by a different puppeteer. Ma Ubu’s canvas handbag is a crocodile puppet named Niles that serves as a paper shredder, conveniently chomping on documents, videotapes and other incriminating evidence that Pa Ubu would prefer to suppress. (Interestingly, Jarry’s “Ubu” trilogy was originally influenced by a farcical marionette play that his schoolmates performed when they were at the lycée; it mocked their teacher, calling him Père Hébé, the King of Poland.)

For Jane Taylor, one of the dilemmas of creating a script based on the personal and horrifying testimonies revealed in the Commission hearings was how to respectfully represent these brutalized histories without (mis)appropriating other people’s stories. The testimony was in the public domain, but how to theatricalize it? The puppet, she has written, “draws attention to its own artifice, and we as audience willingly submit ourselves to the ambiguous processes that at once deny and assert the reality of what we watch.” In “Ubu,” the puppet witnesses exist on one scale, the human characters on another.

For Rob Bailis, who is the associate director of Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley, which is presenting this revival of “Ubu and the Truth Commission,” the use of puppets is a brilliant way to say complex and difficult things: “The puppet becomes a vehicle for this aspect of the human experience, and we can digest it a little better with this intermediary,” he says. Handspring’s work in general, he adds, is so whimsical, and at times so dark, that he finds it intoxicating. (The company is perhaps best known for “War Horse,” produced by the Royal National Theatre in London in 2007.)

Director Kentridge has explained in interviews that in creating the piece, he was concerned with the ethics of Handspring’s responsibility to the actual survivors whose stories the company is dramatizing. If humans were to portray the witnesses, would the audience truly be able to believe in the actor, knowing that the actual witness exists in the real world? he wondered. A puppet, he has said, “would leave the audience with no reason to believe that the puppet or puppeteers represented an actual witness . . . [and so, the] puppet becomes a medium through which the testimony can be heard” unfettered, so to speak, the themes of justice, punishment and forgiveness perceived in a new and clear light. In the play’s mise-en-scène, the witness puppets are never actually seen by Pa and Ma Ubu; they are right there, close enough to touch, but on another metaphorical plane.

“The Commission itself is theatre,” Kentridge has written. “[W]itnesses . . . have their half hour to tell their story, pause, weep, be comforted by professional comforters who sit . . . with them. The stories are harrowing, spellbinding. The audience sits at the edge of its seat listening to every word. This is exemplary civic theatre . . .”

Taylor points out that she was writing the script while the Commission was still ongoing, its outcome uncertain. “There was much anxiety about that while we were writing,” she recalls. “It’s not necessarily the piece we’d have written after it was completed. It was very much about what it felt like to be inside the process of the hearings.” She adds, of infusing the production with various media effects, “We wanted to show conflicting worldviews, conflicting ideologies, a sort of instability, and working with different media helps to provoke a mood of instability.”

This presentation of “Ubu and the Truth Commission” is, according to Bailis, emblematic of a new emphasis for the presenting organization. “It’s particularly important for us to bring discussion to campus and to our immediate community,” he explains. Consequently, members of the Handspring company and other professionals—the company’s associate director, Janni Younge; visiting scholars from Stanford and Hunter College; members of the Bay Area arts community—are offering a series of seminars and workshops for the public. “At this point we are moving the organization to a lot more of this kind of engagement,” says Bailis. This residency, he explains, is an example of future programming in that it involves “situating the work within a civic context.” In booking Handspring, he and his colleagues wondered what lessons could be gleaned from the South African artists and how, through an artistic lens, local participants might be able to view issues of consequence to our own community. “What can we learn from the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” he asks rhetorically. “We’ve come up with a whole series of events that we hope will engage a broad constituency.” Among them are a puppet creation workshop (April 25 and 26) and an on-campus symposium addressing post-apartheid South African politics (May 2).

“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. . . . With the two lead performers in their original roles, that in itself has a powerful resonance. They were 25 years younger then; there’s something rather poignant about watching them 25 years on. Their level of commitment is astonishing, that they’d keep an integrity inside the making of a role.”

If she had rewritten it, how might it have been different? “There was a slightly stronger sense of utopianism early on,” says Taylor. Now, “Everybody is that much more pragmatic and realistic.”

May 1-3, Zellerbach Playhouse, U.C. Berkeley.

(510) 642-9988, http://www.calperformances.org/