Review: Ubu and the Truth Commission (William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company)

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On stage at Toronto’s Berkeley Theatre, a man struggles with a condemning truth

In seeking justice for terrible acts, what do we expect from the people who are guilty? Is it remorse? Is it acknowledgement of their responsibility in the act? Ubu and the Truth Commission, playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre as part of Canadian Stage’s Spotlight South Africa festival, gives the stage to such a figure.

When the South African Truth Commission offers amnesty to those who committed atrocities during Apartheid in exchange for proof the acts were politically motivated and full disclosure of those acts, Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) tries to figure out whether he will admit his guilt and risk punishment or lie and risk getting caught. His struggle is complicated as his wife, Ma (Busi Zokufa), suspects Ubu’s nightly escapades are with another woman but her suspicions may lead her to the truth about her husband.

Ubu is not a likeable man and his wife is not a likeable woman. The audience is repeatedly inundated with both grotesque animations and real photographs from the Apartheid era making Ubu and Ma’s focus on their own gain disturbingly myopic.

There is a lot of detail at work on stage: the vulture that squawks old sayings, Ma’s costume with a marriage of traditional and antique stylings, and the specifically framed scenes that combine large and small, filmed and live performance. Everything felt deliberate in a way that made me wonder what I was missing with my limited knowledge of Apartheid and South Africa.

Structurally, Ubu and the Truth Commission is dependent on the correlating projections and puppetry. The three main puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, and especially Mongi Mthombeni were brought various figures to life individually and collaboratively. William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company’s direction offers many visually compelling scenes that play with shadows, movement, size, and themes. Often running concurrently, the actors, puppetry, and images provoke an emotional response.

At one point, Ubu stands under a shower. Ma listens, sitting in a chair as he washes. The running shower appears on the screen. While Ma believes he’s washing off the scent of a woman, the audience sees via surreal drawings that Ubu is actually washing away the smell of death.

This is not an easy performance to watch. There is a lot of violence: some of it stylized; some of it realistic. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think how timely a show like this was with the recent police shootings in the States. Ubu and the Truth Commission offers a sly perspective on awful people making their comedy everybody else’s tragedy.

After all, the damage Ubu inflicted is already done, what difference does a confession make?


  • Ubu and the Truth Commission runs until April 19th at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St.) as part of the Spotlight South Africa festival
  • Shows are Thursday at 1:00pm and 8:15pm, Friday and Saturday at 8:15pm, and Sunday at 2:15pm
  • Tickets range from $24 to $54 and can be purchased online here or by phone at 416-368-3110, or in person at the main box office at Berkeley Street Theatre; festival packages are also available, see here for details
  • On the Thursday April 16th matinee at 1:00pm there will be a post-show discussion
  • On the Friday April 19th show there will be a pre-show discussion starting at 7:15pm

Photo of Dawid Minnaar courtesy Canadian Stage