Restaged Ubu an exquisite gift

Grahamstown Festival

WHEN a play like Ubu and The Truth Commission that had such an impact the first time round is staged again, more than a decade-and-a-half later, it is the impact – the way it plays now and the differences – that make it such a fascinating event.

Will it carry the same weight or has it lost relevance?

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Ubu and the Truth Commission plays at the Rhodes Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival.
080714. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu909
Ubu and the Truth Commission plays at the Rhodes Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival.
080714. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu707
Cast of the play Protest do their thing at the Graeme College Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival.
080714. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Will it only be about historical value, the past, or did the passing years add different insights?

All those things come into play with this new production with Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa in their original roles of Ubu and Ma Ubu and with a new director, Janni Younge, a 2010 Young Artist Award Winner (Theatre).

One could almost see it for the artistic merit alone. In this Handspring Puppet Company’s astonishing collaboration with William Kentridge, the interplay between the puppet company’s magnificent animals, including the old crocodile handbag and the three-headed dog, agents of the state, and Ubu’s slavish and slobbering underlings.

Then there is the foreboding bird of prey whose squawkish wails gnaw through the bones; and Kentridge’s animation that comments, critiques, cartoons and draws on the underbelly of life in a country where the powerful disregard the rest of humanity – only there to serve their purpose and who, when in the way, simply disappear.

It all pulls together and plays, often as a counterpunch, to the life of a man whose life has spun out of control in the most grotesque fashion. Minnaar, older and wiser, embodies the spirit of prime evil with an appetite that is all-consuming.

Only once in a while does he even stop to consider that there might be other versions to his truth. But never does writer Jane Taylor ever allow us to think that he doesn’t know exactly what he has done or who he is.

His only effort is to obliterate any evidence that may turn the spotlight on him. “Our reign of terror was no error, we knew what we did,” he says. And as he sniffs high and low to find the most convenient scapegoats, he comments, “We can face their exposure, but protect our own.”

It’s a matter of shifting the guilt. It was that easy.

Minnaar fabricates a contemptuous if comical Ubu as he moves between monologues and placating Ma Ubu, who knows nothing about her husband’s murderous scheming and explains all his nocturnal absences by suspecting his wandering eye and obvious lustful appetites.

She could have spared herself much heartache if only she understood this little man who craved, more than anything, her mothering. Zokufa is glorious and grand in her pastel coloured fluff of a costume that covers and hides many ills and harks back to the colours of past ministerial wives.

As always there are lots of asides, winks and nods, some of which might pass you by, but others will catch you deliciously unaware.

It is that kind of production. There’s so much happening, so much being shown and said that to take it all in between the emotional hula-hoop can be quite daunting.

But it all quietens down with the traumatic testimonies still so familiar in those sing-song voices of the translators.

And each time you listen to those torturous testimonies they pierce the heart. The lack of humanity and disregard for human life is more shocking as time elapses and the emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness remain a constant in the national conversation.

No one is spared as Kentridge’s satire and sharp pen is underlined by documentaries that make a meal of the might of the military machine.

Music also plays an integral part with Mannenberg mingling with Hier’s jy weer, hier’s jy weer, met jou rooi rok voor my deur … and Minnaar is in fine voice with quite a few meaningful musical numbers.

It’s an exquisite theatrical experience that reflects both on the past and the future in the most revealing fashion. We can’t go back, nothing changes yet everything does and with that, our perception of how things were and should be.

The number of young people attending the first performance was encouraging, which again stresses the role of theatre and the stories we tell. This is a history lesson they will not easily forget. It was a gift to see this restaged version before it travels the world.

And please, hopefully they will conclude their international tour with at least a few more local performances around the country.

People are begging.

NOT SO with Paul Grootboom’s latest, even if titled Protest. That’s how I felt while watching this debacle by one of my favourite theatre-makers.

Taking everything into consideration – the fact that festivals are notoriously tough to crack, that this is a new work and needs a forgiving eye and heart to take in only the second performance – there wasn’t much positive to come away with.

Well there is one. Grootboom keeps working on a play until he gets it right. It felt as if we were watching a bad rehearsal – and this was on the main festival. Audiences expect and should receive better.

Let’s start with the technical mishaps. Apart from the sound that never worked – and this is a drama with songs – the microphones kept scratching and making those awful noises. Some of the main actors couldn’t be heard in solo song and in the chorus singing, some voices dominated through the speakers throughout. That was when you could hear the singers above the volume of the band, which got better through the long two-and-a-half-hour production.

Not every solo singer in the show is blessed with a great voice, which means special care should be taken with the accompaniment, which should be sensitive to make the singing work.

The staging was extremely messy, which made it difficult to follow the action because the large group of actors – when not part of the action – were standing on either side of the stage, as if in a rehearsal. Everybody was busy most of the time, either dressing for the next scene or moving sets while something was still happening on stage – or getting ready on the side to make an entrance. One was constantly distracted by side shows.

It’s an interesting device and it could work if it is a much slicker production, but in one as murky as this, it just seemed clumsy.

Any hope? With Grootboom, definitely, because he keeps developing even completed plays.

But this one needs a good rethink. Everything gets lost in the constantly moving stage and the message is nowhere to be seen.

Having spoken to the director, I know his intent, but it gets lost in-between too much of nothing happening.

The production seemed under-rehearsed with actors still stumbling on their lines and these were not just the inexperienced ones. Protest was high on my list of productions with promise, but this time the great Grootboom let his festival fans down with something that simply wasn’t ready.

At one point the lights were out and both actors and audience had to make do in the dark. And the multimedia was too dark to have impact.

For this fan it was a sad day.

• Protest opens for a run at the State Theatre next week.

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