Ubu’s place in post-TRC South Africa

Some images from Ubu and the Truth Commission. The famous eye image sits bottom middle.

“Look for the eye,” advised Think!Fest convenor Anthea Garman when she introduced the packed Eden Grove audience to Ubu and the Truth Commission yesterday. “That eye belongs to Jane Taylor.” Jane Taylor’s talk, “Omissions and Commissions: Re-making Ubu, explored the pastiche lead character of the award-winning piece – Pa Ubu.

Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi formed the backbone of Pa Ubu’s character – both are beguiling and greedy figures with shady political intentions and aspirations. Jarry’s Ubu is informed by the Shakespearean tragic hero Macbeth – whose hubris is clearly seen in Jarry and Taylor’s Ubu. Taylor stressed that art exists in relation to other art and this connection should be interactive, and can lead to communication beyond what was originally envisaged by the artist. Taylor overturns Aristotle’s notion of good theatre only consisting of one kind of medium. Ubu and the Truth Commission demonstrates that the patterning of contradictory media and the use of mixed media can make good theatre that is profound in a subtle and perhaps, overwhelming, way.

Unlike Jarry’s Ubu, Taylor’s Ubu does not live in a vacuum. “My interest in re-creating Ubu Roi is to insert him into a world where his actions do have consequences,” explained Taylor. The absurdism of Ubu Roi is not lost in the reincarnation of Pa Ubu. His relationship to Ma Ubu, as well as his comically relentless and often brutal political machinations are likened to “the landscape of Tom and Jerry cartoons”, according to Taylor.

Ubu and the Truth Commission provides the pivotal function of aiding reconciliation outside state politics and the legalese that dogged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The consequences of Pa Ubu’s actions, and those whom he stands as a symbol for, are of significance to all South Africans living in a post-apartheid context.

Lauren Kruger’s comment of South Africa being in a state of “post-anti-apartheid” raises important questions about the mixing pot that is South African identity and notions of nationhood. Taylor stressed the need to think about these issues to facilitate dealing with the public and national trauma that apartheid created and how art plays an instrumental role in this. Taylor commented on the validity of Kruger’s comment today, as the Manichean logic which was once a part of daily life is no longer. “I am of the belief we are in a post-TRC phase and narratives of self-reflection are significant to South African citizens,” said Taylor.

The significance of the TRC as a staged series of events lends itself to theatre. Taylor notes how this was not done to undermine pain caused to victims, but as a reminder of “the potency of theatre”. Taylor drew on the story of Dirk Coetzee and Vlakplaas to demonstrate how the “public confessional” is a topic that societies, and in this case, audiences, never tire of. Beginning with Rosseau’s The Confessions, Taylor believes “the framing of personal guilt a dramatic revelation” is something still seen in contemporary South African society with our morbid fascination with the Oscar Pistorius trial and addiction to reality TV.

“Artists should be called upon to engage with significant issues. It is the artist’s responsibility to be a part of the philosophical enquiry […] and ethical meaning of a society,” said Taylor. Pa Ubu’s strutting and braggart figure makes for an interesting articulation of South Africans being in dialogue with themselves and each other in this “post-TRC period”.

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