The Print Room, London (***)
South Africa’s Handspring Puppets are unmissable. War Horse notwithstanding, their work continues to inspire, in another league altogether though heaven knows the quality of puppeteering in this country has never been higher. So it’s a coup for Anda Winters’ Print Room to be staging this revival first produced in South Africa nearly two decades ago.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a ground-breaker, an attempt – subsequently copied by some though not enough countries – to heal a strife ridden past by honouring stories from both sides. The original impact of this piece by Handspring with animator William Kentridge based on Alfred Jarry’s anarchic, highly charged political satire can only be wondered at. Interestingly, Basil Jones, Handspring co-founder notes in the Print Room’s programme how performing it earlier this year in Berkeley, California in the wake of the American police shootings, it struck a deeply significant chord.
Here in London, its resonances are also apparent though I suspect seeing it played before a more multi-racial audience might have added another dimension. Context is all. As it is, initially it’s hard not to receive it as a period piece albeit a magnificent one and a morality tale at that.
In terms of theatrical elements, we’ve nothing quite like it here. The puppets again are extraordinary – a three-headed dog-of-war; a ravenous crocodile and most movingly, the faces of the witnesses giving evidence to the Commission. On top of that Kentridge’s drawings add a bleak commentary with a stream of black-and-white animations, ironic and heart-breaking by turn.
Last but by no means least, Ma & Pa Ubu, grossly played and rightly by Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa provide the obscene human quality – arrogant, violent, corrupt, grasping.
Political theatre played as farce, read it as an indictment of how the Commission was used as a tool by those who perpetrated the crimes. And as a latter-day warning as to how the powerful always seem to escape punishment.
Ma and Pu Ubu sail away towards a new, sun-dashed horizon. But do they? Did they? Corruption and violence continue in South Africa under President Zuma – as elsewhere. The powerful continue to go untouched.
Ubu and the Truth Commission runs at The Print Room to Nov 7, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Oct 2015