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Voices of Truth remind us of the crimes during apartheid regime

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.

SINS OF THE PAST: The play uses testimonies from the Truth And Justice Commission hearings to give glimpses of the horrors or apartheid.
SINS OF THE PAST: The play uses testimonies from the Truth And Justice Commission hearings to give glimpses of the horrors or apartheid.

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.

Now, 17 years after its premiere, with Handspring universally acclaimed for their work on War Horse, and with South Africa commemorating 20 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 the Samuel Beckett estate would not allow the play to be done with puppets.

"Then, at a certain point, I realised I had committed myself 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 Commission came together.

"They did so very quickly in a strong way, in the sense that the 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 used in the Ubu areas.

"We found 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 that Kentridge knew from playing a dancing bear in a student production of Jarry's play. Discovering 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 says, "so you were aware it was another voice, rather than having actors pretending to be that person. It is 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 did not 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 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 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 that is one of the things that happens with the production 17 years on, to give something of a reminder of how recent old history is. It is like the ancient sound of a dot matrix printer, which is from only eight years ago, but it feels like it could be from 50 years ago.

"One of the shocking things is how little has changed in 17 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 are not so ancient."

Ubu And The Truth Commission, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Thursday to Saturday.

l www.eif.co.uk

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