There was a time in Ireland when every child of primary-school-going age had been to see Eugene Lambert’s puppet theatre. It was a mainstay on the school-tour circuit, something not to be missed. Located in Monkstown, Co Dublin, it was founded in 1972 by the man who would make puppetry an art in Ireland. He was inspired after visiting the Prague Puppet Festival apparently. The family business is now being run by his son Liam.
Puppetry has come on in leaps and bounds since then. Joey, the War Horse, in the movie of the same name, is way down the puppetry evolutionary scale. His creator, Adrian Kohler, of the Handspring Puppet Company, says that ‘puppets always have to try to be alive. ‘
I had the opportunity recently to see the South-Africa-based Handspring in action. They are currently touring Europe with their play: Ubu and the Truth Commission, a powerful commentary on the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that was first performed 18 years ago. The puppeteers are in full view but the puppets are so life-like they take centre stage. The deep gouges in the wooden faces reflect the light in such a way that they seem to move – facial expressions become real. Most eerie.
The victims are all played by puppets, the predators by humans. Much of the word play was lost in translation – which is unfortunate. She asks him to pass the salt. His guilty conscience kicks in and he answers: Who said it was assault? Confronting the general about his late nights and implied infidelities, she screams at him: Who owns your heart? This is just one of many questions asked during the play that got me thinking. Questions that I wouldn’t normally think twice about. Such is the power of good theatre.
I was surprised to learn that the first TRC was not in South Africa, but in Chile. And although in theory, it works for me at some level, I was left wondering at the imbalance of it all. The victims, mostly parents whose children had been murdered by those ‘just doing their job’, got to face those who had robbed them of their futures. Complete disclosure was needed. And the actions had to be politically motivated. ‘No dirt could be left under the nails after such a complete manicure.’ But is there really such a thing as forgiveness without cost? Or is it a lofty ideal that so many strive for and fail to reach? The general commenting on the TRC notes that ‘my slice of old cheese and your loaf of fresh bread will make a tolerable meal.’ Worth thinking on.
For any parent to outlive their child is heartbreaking. What is left for them? Much like what was left for South Africa?
Video footage and photographs, alongside animations and music played in the background. Seeing photos of dead children and videos of assaults all added to the horror. As the victims testified in front of the Commission, interpreters translated. Closed off in a class cage, the neutral loneliness of the interpreters was intended to epitomise the neutrality of the TRC.
Ubu as a character first appeared 130 years ago from the mind and pen of a 17-year-old french student, Alfred Jarry, in a play about his science teacher. Although it opened and closed on the same night, it would have far-reaching consequences for theatre worldwide.
Ubu Roi (Ubu the King or King Ubu) is a play by Alfred Jarry. It was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, causing a riotous response in the audience as it opened and closed on December 10, 1896. It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. For those who were in the audience on that night to witness the response, including William Butler Yeats, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernism in the twentieth century. It is a precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices — in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.
I sat through the performance with one question running through my mind: Do I have what it takes to forgive – completely forgive? I wonder.
This week began in Budapest and ended up in Bangalore. Such is my world. Such is globalisation. With travel as easy as it is, alternative theatres like Traffo can bring companies like Handspring to Budapest who bring with them questions that broaden our world and get us thinking. That’s something to be grateful for.