You can smell the death on Pa Ubu’s body as he enters the stage in a violent fit of rage. He literally kick starts the play into action and demands the audience’s attention. This is not a comfort zone experience where you sit back and take in a show. It puts razor wire around your conscience and forces audience participation rather than passive spectatorship.
More than a play, it combines several art forms to bring its message across in a remarkably visual form. It also uses choreography, animation and documentary to provide an even more vivid perspective on the dark years of apartheid. Words, confessions and Truth and Reconciliation hearings spring into violent life both on screen and stage with puppets adding subtext.
Ubu (a remarkable Dawid Minnaar) commands the stage when he clashes with his wife (the powerful Busi Zokufa) as she reprimands him for his womanising ways. Meantime he has been running a death squad with man-eating dogs (that spring to life in the form of some brilliant puppeteering) to keep control of a floundering apartheid system. And now it is payback time.
This is a man without a conscience whose hidden acts are projected onto the screen and comes to life in animation reminiscent of the earliest short films. It effortlessly blends in with live performance to present a commanding picture with a hint of dark comedy that bleeds into the audience’s subconscious.
Sound (with music by Warrick Sony) further underlines the experiences of the victims of apartheid. What is even more disturbing, is that the emotional voices of the victims are counteracted by a monotone, unemotional delivery when translated into English. This forces the audience to listen and experience the horrific details twice.
And then there are the transgressors, (here represented by Pa Ubu), who appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are trying to absolve themselves from the horrific crimes they committed. It is literally a whitewashing of sins in a shower of death in which skeletons crash into the audience’s laps.
This ground-breaking production has to be seen to be believed and presents theatre, combined with other art forms, which rocks The Market to its very foundations.
It is a life-affirming experience which prompts reflection and hasn’t lost any of its impact since 1996 when it was first presented in the Market Theatre. I saw it then and this return season confirms that truth on stage, especially in this form, is now more essential than ever before. And it reminds us that we should never forget.
Leon van Nierop
UBU and the Truth Commissions runs at the Market Theatre until 11 September 2016.