Arts: Theatre: The truth is out there

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The Independent Culture
A THUGGISH-LOOKING man is standing at a podium making a statement that reeks of self-preserving bad faith. Suddenly, the bank of microphones into which he is speaking turn against him, rearing away on springs at mad, indignant angles and whizzing murderously round and round, with the result that he has to keep ducking so as not to get his block knocked off. The retributive instincts of these comic mikes are perhaps sounder, we're left to deduce, than those of the human beings at this tribunal. For the above is a scene that comes towards the end of Ubu and the Truth Commission, a piece brought across from South Africa to this year's London International Festival of Theatre by William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company.

This is by no means the first time that a contemporary show has requisitioned Ma and Pa Ubu - those infantile homicidal parodies of the Macbeths from Jarry's prescient surrealist extravaganza of 1896 - to characterise conscienceless tyrannies closer to home. Sylviu Purcarete memorably presented them as the archetypes behind the Ceausescus.

But it's the first time in my experience that this central conceit - Dauid Minnaar's cartoon-like, outrageous Pa, wearing nothing but boots and grubby underwear, is a government torturer with plenty to hide in post-apartheid South Africa - has been tricked out with so many other anti-naturalistic devices. Wooden puppets are used both for the black witnesses, testifying to the appalling atrocities their families suffered, and for an array of symbolic creatures such as Niles, a crocodile with a conveniently voracious appetite for guzzling up incriminating evidence, and Brutus, a vicious three-headed dog-of-war who provides the harmony backing for some of Pa's noxious ditties. Black-and-white animations full of violent metamorphoses are joltingly intercut with real-life news footage. The atmosphere generated is one of grotesque dislocation; the humour is the colour of pitch.

The piece has all the power of a stark simplification, and you can understand why its makers may not wish to be detained by qualifications, particularly at a time when it has just been announced that a former white president, guilty of contempt of court by refusing to appear at South Africa's Truth and Justice Commission, has got off with a lightish fine and a suspended sentence.

None the less, I felt some misgivings about the play, which were perhaps exacerbated by the choice of venue. The Tricycle has a noble history of presenting stage re-creations of trials and hearings about violations of justice - from the Arms to Iraq affair to the Stephen Lawrence case. Watching Ubu and the Truth Commission, I realised how profoundly grateful I was that this theatre had chosen to present a straightforward, meticulously faithful treatment of such events.

The aesthetic of Kentridge's piece helps to underline the Alice-in-Wonderland- like biz-arre nature of the Commission's moral logic - a reversal of the normal procedure whereby the more horrors you confess to, the further you are from amnesty. It can't do justice, though, to the complex motives of those who set up the Commission, or take into consideration such awkward facts as that the ANC perpetrated human rights abuses, too, and that Archbishop Tutu threatened to resign unless this was admitted. It all makes for a visceral, but not an enlightening, evening.