It was with much anticipation that we returned to the Print Room in Notting Hill to witness the second show of their autumn season. Ubu And The Truth Commission is a combination of puppetry, live performance, animation, song and buffoonery that tells the story of Pa Ubu and his culpability during the apartheid era in South Africa and his participation in the hearings of the truth and reconciliation committee. The work was presented as part of Suspense Festival which showcases some of the best new puppetry, physical theatre and narrative performance across London.
The title character is based largely on an earlier work by Alfred Jarry, who created the greedy and infantile buffoon King Ubu Roi. His iconic form, big bellied with a spiral pattern on his tummy and a conical head, appears a lot during the animation and live action. This piece used so many different elements. It is commendable that it never felt disjointed and in fact every layer of performance added more to the piece.
The show is created by Handspring Puppet Company, the South African puppeteers made famous for creating War Horse with the National Theatre, and is directed by renowned South African director, William Kentridge. It is intended to inform and educate us about the the past but it also entertains and inspires. Jane Taylor’s text is guided by William Kentridge to produce a wonderful narrative filled with symbolism, which both delicately and jarringly, trace the course of one high ranking officer and his involvement in the atrocities of apartheid and his response to the setting up of the commission.
Real evidence from the commission is used and delivered in Afrikaans and then translated. The story has features that would have been common to many of the stories heard by the commission. All who came before them faced the immense gravity of a decision whether or not to conceal or divulge evidence. Was their honour greater than their fear?
The puppetry was incredibly inventive with two of the puppets made out of briefcases and bags, able to swallow up evidence, and then a selection of human puppets used to recount evidence at the hearings. Finally, a vulture puppet presides over the proceedings. We wish we had seen more involvement by this puppet.
The imagery and symbolism of the horrors of apartheid were dramatically illustrated by the animation that mixed with real footage and other devised imagery. We were reminded of Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python, possibly an influence on the animators. However, it had its own style using only black and white, a clear reference to race. The spider-like camera tripod, the Ubu Roi character and the dancing cat added dark humour, that contrasted with more graphic imagery.
The acting, voices and manipulation of the puppets had a realism and magic that created a dark world with moments of light. Maybe that was the overriding message that oppression and brutality can be overcome. Furthermore, the use of truth commissions rather than criminal trials and investigation is surely a better route for reconciling polarised communities. Surely it’s a more transforming experience for everyone. Even if some people do sail off into the sunset…
The Print Room has its new venue in the Coronet and although it is crumbling to pieces, the fading grandeur creates a wonderful space to enjoy theatre. The only thing they need to tighten up is audience re-admittance. Whilst some ‘tired’ people left the show, at least three re-entered generally disturbing the audience. On a more positive note, the ‘new’ Print Room, must have one of the best theatre bars in the whole world: it almost feels like you are stepping onto a fully set stage – a gorgeous use of the original stalls space.
More importantly though, great work from The Print Room for getting this exceptional puppet company in. Handspring Puppet Company have created a remarkable piece in its inventiveness, honesty and spectacle using a fantastic combination of forms, for this surreal yet honest examination of South Africa’s history.
Highlights of the show – Far too many: the shower scene coupled with the metaphorical animations, both songs by Ubu and the dogs, Ubu’s final speech for the commission with the unfavorable microphones and the entrance of the life size Ubu Roi.