"WHAT is it that you wash away?" says Busi Zokufa's Ma Ubu as she once again catches her husband spending too long in the shower. Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is a scatological send-up of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but in this retelling, it is the tyrannical Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar), who has trouble ridding himself of that damn'd spot.
As he stands in the shower cubicle, still in his unbecoming vest and underpants, we see an animation by director William Kentridge that illustrates in scratchy white-on-black the guilty secrets he is trying to cleanse himself of. Tumbling towards the plughole is a torrent of human skulls and bones.
In Ubu and the Truth Commission, South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, famed for its work on War Horse, reframes the Jarry original work in terms of the post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission. Ma Ubu thought her husband was out philandering, but he was actually running a death squad – represented by a three-headed puppet dog – with the complicity of the state. In her blinkered naivety, she seems to regard this as a lesser crime.
Pa Ubu isn't convinced he has anything to apologise for as the new South Africa is born, but for safety's sake he feeds his incriminating documents, video tapes and instruments of torture to a paper-shredding crocodile. His amoral indifference is in contrast to the first-hand testimonies we hear about police brutality, translated from the original languages and accompanied by Kentridge's darkening images. The implication is that he and his establishment cronies have got off lightly.
Ubu would seem more gruesome in a production with more anarchic energy, and the play surely can't pack the same political punch as it did on its 1997 premiere, but it is a fascinating response to an extraordinary time.