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William Kentridge - Ubu and the Truth Commission

When Johannesburg-born artist William Kentridge teamed up with the
Handspring Puppet Company to create Ubu and the Truth Commission, the
post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that
inspired it was a year into proceedings Scripted by Jane Taylor,
Kentridge's audacious fusion of Alfred Jarry's piece of proto-absurdist
buffoonery and real life transcripts from the Commission opened in
Johannesburg in 1997. The show went on to tour South Africa, Europe and
America, finishing with a run at the London International Festival of
Theatre in 1999. Seventeen years after its premiere, with Handspring
now universally acclaimed for their work on War Horse, and with South
Africa commemorating twenty years of democracy, Kentridge's revival of
Ubu and the Truth Commission closes this year's Edinburgh International
Festival theatre programme.

While much of South African theatre remains associated with the
satirical agit-prop of the likes of the Market Theatre of Johannesburg
and Pieter-Dirk Uys, Ubu and the Truth Commission offered a more
multi-layered, collage-like approach, fusing live action and
Handspring's puppetry with music, Brechtian techniques, archive film
footage and Kentridge's own animations.

“Initially I worked on a series of etchings of Ubu,” says Kentridge,
who is one of South Africa's most renowned artists, best known for his
sculptures, tapestries and film work. “At the time, it was the
centenary of the first production of Ubu Roi, and I became interested
in working with a dancer and animations based on the etchings,.At the
same time I was talking to Handspring about doing a project based
around waiting. We wanted to do Waiting For Godot, but in their wisdom
the Samuel Beckett estate wouldn't allow the play to be done with
puppets.

“Then at a certain point I realised I'd committed myself both to the
Ubu project, and to working with Handspring on the project about
waiting, which we decided would include material from the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. The only way out of this double date was to
smash the two together, and see what would happen if Ubu Roi and the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission came together. They did so very
quickly in a strong way, in the sense that the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission gave a kind of gravitas to the burlesque of Jarry, and the
Jarry gave a formal language to the difficult material of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission.

“The test became how close could one bring archival images and archival
text of the witnesses evidence together with the burlesque and crude
animation that was used in the Ubu areas. We found
that the closer they were together, the stronger they became, and that
the crude drawings of violence had a real violence in them when put
against the documentary evidence. I think it also made you see archival
footage in a way that was less jaded than the way one usually sees
archival footage on the television, for example.”

Ubu and the Truth Commission was Kentridge's third collaboration with
Handspring following versions of Faust and Woyzeck, so puppetry was a
given for a version of a play which Kentridge knew from playing a
dancing bear in a student production of Jarry's play. Discovering that
puppets had been used in Jarry's original 1896 production of Ubu Roi
also seemed to sit well with Kentridge and Handspring's approach.

“Our question of how to deal with the real voices that had been
speaking was to use the very artificial language of a puppet being the
witness,” Kentridge explains, “so you were aware it was another voice,
rather than having actors pretending to be that person. It's a
complicated question, the relationship between documentary material and
theatricality, and the double games of belief and non-belief one plays
when watching them.”

During the show's creation, its cast and creatives attended some of the
Truth and Justice Commission hearings, “to see the theatricality of it
first-hand,” Kentridge says, “to watch the witnesses and listen to the
translators, and to check what the raw material of what we were working
on.”

While acclaimed across the globe, Ubu and the Truth Commission didn't
please everyone.

“At the time,” says Kentridge, “some people thought it was much too
soon to have done the piece, but one of our feelings was firstly to do
with the fact that no artists had been invited to be participants in
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There were priests, there were
teachers, there were politicians, but there were no artists. This felt
to us to be a gap, considering that mourning, grief, responsibility and
guilt are the stock in trade or the raw material with which artists
work.

“The other feeling was that there were all of these extraordinary
pieces of information and witnessing being broadcast every day, which
it seemed were about to disappear irrevocably into an archive. One of
the things the production could do would be to make these stories heard
more often, and in fact that's one of the things that happens with the
production seventeen years on, to give something of a reminder of how
recent old history is. It's like the ancient sound of a dot matrix
printer, which is only from eight years ago, but it feels like it could
be from fifty years ago.”

“One of the shocking things is how little has changed in seventeen
years, and how the venality of Ubu and Ma' Ubu in the play is borne out
by so many old and new politicians in South Africa. So it has a
different echo, I think, and different images make one think of
different characters in the political firmament, but for me it still
feels  like a good voice to hear again. Hearing these stories again
made me realise they aren't so ancient.”

Ubu and the Truth Commission, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 28-30, 8pm,
August 30, 2.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 26th 2014


ends

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