If South African theatre is known to Canadian audiences, it is surely as an art form of fierce political engagement. From the classic township dramas of Athol Fugard to Yael Farber's recent adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie as Mies Julie, the country has rejoiced in an identifiably national theatre of tautly staged plays that fearlessly tackle issues of race and power. Two decades after the end of apartheid is that intense focus starting to change?
As the country marks the 21st anniversary of its first multi-racial elections, it's an interesting question to ask the artists behind the Handspring Puppet Company. On the one hand, the company is renowned for creating the puppets in War Horse, a stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's sentimental First World War novel that became an international commercial hit. On the other hand, Handspring spent the decade before War Horse working on socially engaged shows with leading South African visual artist, animator and director William Kentridge, the son of the anti-apartheid lawyer Sydney Kentridge. It's the third of those pieces, Ubu and the Truth Commission, that Handspring is presenting in sold-out performances in Toronto this month as part of Canadian Stage's Spotlight South Africa.
"There was a time in 1994 when we didn't know what the hell to put on the stage, we were so used to politics," said Handspring artistic director Adrian Kohler in an interview from Cape Town, where the company is based.
That didn't last long: When South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission began hearings into apartheid's atrocities in 1996, the company was handed dramatic material. After the success of Kentridge's work creating South African versions of two German classics, Goethe's Faust and Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, the team had hoped to adapt Waiting for Godot, but had been blocked by the Samuel Beckett estate's notoriously tight control of any changes to the setting or stage directions of the play. Instead, they chose Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, the grotesque satire of a licentious and sadistic monarch and his scheming queen that caused a near riot in the Paris theatre where it was first performed in 1896.
In Handspring's version, Pa Ubu goes out every night and returns home behaving and smelling strangely. Ma Ubu suspects her husband of infidelity but is proud to discover he's actually a government torturer. The script, by Jane Taylor, uses verbatim passages from the Truth Commission hearings to give words to his victims. They are played by puppets, as are the dogs of war that accompany Pa, while Pa and Ma themselves are played by actors Dawid Minnaar and Busi Zokufa.
"The puppet adds a level of distancing, a level of metaphorical existence to a theatre piece," says Kohler, explaining how the company has used puppetry to address difficult themes in adult theatre. "You combine it with an actor and you are able to do the subject in a slightly different light, it's not a person acting the role, it's an idea of the role." In Ubu for example, the puppets perform the experiences of real South Africans while the characters played by the real actors live in some grotesque fantasy world where they cannot hear the puppets' truths. Ma and Pa Ubu sail off in the end – in a boat full of holes.
Reviving the 1997 show for the Edinburgh Festival and Canadian Stage and also touring it to Colombia and Brazil, Handspring discovered its meaning had expanded since those first post-apartheid years: it has become a play about what states do with absolute power.
"Audiences come back stage in Bogota, in Sao Paulo, and say this is about us, this is about us now," says Handspring executive producer Basil Jones. "They haven't had their truth and reconciliation periods."
Similarly, the trio of Handspring shows featuring animal protagonists that followed Ubu in the 2000s have broad political implications, Kohler and Jones argue. War Horse was preceded by Tall Horse, about the gift of Sudanese giraffe to the king of France in 1827, and The Chimp Project, about reintroducing a Johannesburg television animal to the wild.
"It's about the way humans impinge on the lives of animals, so you look at the effect of humans in the world," says Kohler. "There's a political shift there to the ecological."
This gradual broadening of themes while still maintaining very hardy political roots is apparent throughout Spotlight South Africa. The festival has begun with an update of Fugard's 1959 township romance Nongogo produced by Johannesburg's famed Market Theatre and concludes with Chandelier, a provocative piece by performance artist Steven Cohen, who appears on stage clad as an angelic hermaphrodite to narrate a film he shot during the 2001 bulldozing of the squatter community at Newton in Johannesburg.
In between there are appearances by two South African dancers which also reflect some enduring political engagement. Trained as a classical ballet dancer in the European tradition, Mamela Nyamza presents an autobiographical piece in which starts by stuffing herself into a tutu and ends performing her own version of a tribal dance, while Luyanda Sidiya's double-bill entitled Dominion begins with modernized tribal dance but proceeds to a narrative about military dictatorship, warning of the re-emergence of tyranny.
Even as South Africa marks post-apartheid democracy's coming-of-age birthday, its stage artists are still engaged and enraged: "Many people are saying there is far too little change, so political theatre is entirely apposite now," Jones said.
Spotlight South Africa continues at Canadian Stage to April 25.