Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 9 June, 1999

The biennial London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) kicks off this year with a technically remarkable, thematically tangled production from William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Ubu And The Truth Commission blends Jarry's surrealist play of 1896 with testimonies given a century later to South Africa's official body of collective witness, and likewise mixes live actors as Pa and Ma Ubu with puppets representing witnesses and Pa's minions, and projected photographic and animated images.

Whilst Ma Ubu imagines that Pa's nights away have been the occasions of marital infidelity, we know that he has been torturing and murdering in the name of the state. His colleagues are a three-headed puppet dog whose body is a suitcase on wheels literally a repressive state apparatus and, even more punningly, a crocodile handbag called Niles which smilingly consumes the evidence. Pa's increasing worries about how to face the imminent new régime deny and stand trial, avail himself of the amnesty and come clean before the Commission, or pass the buck? are intercut with simple, direct testimonies from those who lost their loved ones or were tortured themselves.

Kentridge and his company of five blend the various modes of presentation together expertly, intertwining humans, puppets and projections seamlessly. Jane Taylor's script is more problematic. It is understandable that the Ubus never react directly to the Commission's witnesses, but despite the physical closeness as witnesses seem to emerge from Pa's and Ma's bodies, the sense of interconnection is attenuated. The knotty issue at the core of the production how to resolve the conflicting demands of justice and reconciliation, punishment and forgiveness, in the best interests of moving forward as a nation is alluded to constantly, but never feels as if it has been fastened in a firm grasp, never mind advancing tentative opinions on the matter. (In fact, I may be wrong, but I do not recall even hearing the word "reconciliation" during the 90-minute show.) This may be due to the show's origins at a particular, sensitive stage in the birth of the new South Africa perhaps Kentridge and Taylor felt that to question the reconciliation process too directly might somehow endanger, or at least complicate, the process itself but it leaves the sensation of a whirling, inchoate proto-examination rather than fully formed thoughts on the subject.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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