'Ubu and the Truth Commission' – Handspring Puppet Company

'Ubu and the Truth Commission', first performed in 1997, is a poignant response to political transition in post-apartheid South Africa. It brings together the craft of three visionary South African artists: writer Jane Taylor’s adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist classic Ubu Roi (1896), Handspring Puppet Company’s intricate puppetry and artist William Kentridge’s animation and direction. It has been revived for the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections and staged at the Edinburgh International Festival 2014.

The violence committed on the streets and torture chambers of apartheid South Africa is depicted in Kentridge’s animation collaged with photo documentation. A perpetrator of these atrocities, Pa Ubu comes home and takes long showers to wash off blood stains. His flamboyant wife Ma Ubu, without knowing where Pa Ubu spends his time, accuses him of having affairs. Pa and Ma Ubu are performed by the original cast members Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa. Their energy is still vibrant after seventeen years.

All the rest of the characters are portrayed by puppets. Assisting the couple are the three-headed dog Brutus and a crocodile named Niles. Both puppets’ bodies are made of bags with significant memories attached. Niles’ body belonged to Handspring’s Adrian Kohler’s father when he served in the army in North Africa, and the suitcase of Brutus’ body was previously owned by human rights lawyer and activist Braam Fischer who defended Nelson Mandela and was sentenced to life in prison during apartheid. Videotapes and papers documenting Pa Ubu’s wrongdoings are fed into the animal puppets and stored in the bags. A vulture perched on stage flaps its wings and cries in premonition of bloodshed.

The burlesque-style performances of the animal puppets and grotesque Pa and Ma Ubu are punctuated by sober reenactments of testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996. Puppets positioned on a table give evidence in various South African languages while their words are interpreted by actors in a glass booth that also serves as Pa Ubu’s shower. The shower head stands in for a microphone. Through the double use of the shower booth, the TRC's idea that amnesty can be granted through honest testimony is criticised. Pa Ubu might take shower after shower, and one witness after another might parade in front of the commission, but at the end there is no redemption.

'Ubu' belongs to a particular era of post-apartheid South Africa. What was sensational and emotionally charged in the live hearings is transmuted and sublimated through puppetry, animation and symbolic play. The different layers of media were intended to give 1997 South African audiences room for contemplation. Its distancing strategies were needed at a time when emotions and violence were too close. The poignant dignity of its historical reenactment offers guidance as to how we might represent the calamities of our own time.


'Ubu and the Truth Commission'
Handspring Puppet Company 


"The poignant dignity of the play's historical reenactment offers guidance as to how we might represent the calamities of our own time."

Additional Info

We watched this performance at the Royal Lyceum during the Edinburgh International Festival 2014.