As one of our most established dark comedians, Pieter Dirk Uys starts off 2014 on a high note with his one man show, Adapt or Fly – a moving political satire within the South African scope. The small and exclusive atmosphere of the Theatre on the Bay provides the ideal performance platform for Uys’ singular production and his ‘boxes of mystery’. Audience members however need to be armed with a quick sense of humour and a basic general knowledge of who’s who in South African politics, in order to experience this production at its fullest.
Adapt or Fly is a non-stop tour-de-force which condenses the political history of South Africa with a potent injection of dark humour. Having lived through – and resisted – the apartheid regime himself, Uys takes us on a trip down the turbulent and volatile memory lane of our country’s rich history.
At its foundation, the production details how history often repeats itself though our national leaders. Uys’ opens the show in full Hitler guise, which funnily enough is not distasteful. From then on none of the big architects of destruction goes unscathed – DF Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd, PW Botha, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema and even the unassuming Kgalema Motlanthe all suffer from Uys’ sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued wit. His most memorable incarnation, former Prime Minister Pik Botha, is delightfully schadenfreudalist in tone as Uys ventures into Botha’s famed exoneration of his own guilt and proverbial jumping of ideological ships at the 1994 liberation.
To provide balance and perhaps to lighten the production, Uys also shares two ‘everyday’ stereotypical women in our society. In her heyday a young activist with questionable motives, Mrs Petersen is now a matured Muslim woman who reflects with hilarity and a remarkable sense of stoicism on the Group Areas Act of 1968. Her family was, she tells us, amongst the many who under racial profiling were forced to relocate from developed areas such as Rondebosch to the bleaker Cape Flats. With a tongue-in-the-cheek tactfulness, Mrs Petersen offers her opinion on everything from the surge of African immigrants, to violent run-ins with the security police, to the Jewish community and ‘the problem with the youth of today’, each statement steeped in the “I’m not racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, but….” school of argument.
Mrs Petersen shares a distinct theme of patriotism with another of Uys’ ‘everyday’ characters, Nowell Fine. An aged Jewish ‘kugel’, based in Seapoint and brought up in an upper middle class society during the height of segregation, Nowell Fine provides a comical monologue inspired by a recent high school reunion. In words laced with bitter irony she claims all her fellow classmates have emigrated to first world countries, where, botoxed to oblivion, they now appear to be disdainful of South Africa. Forgetful and overtly chatty with a distinct Fran Drescher voice, she offers an insightful glimpse into patriotism, old-age and the modern obsession with youth. Nowell is in fact one of Uys’ most authentic, nuanced and underrated alter egos, although rarely seen.
Is it possible to get away with a skit on Nelson Mandela, especially given his recent passing? Yes, if it is in the hands of Pieter Dirk Uys. Not only does he take up the challenge, but he delivers the result with effortless charm. The foray deals mainly with Mandela’s trademark glasses, printed shirts, and buccal-style speech which he compares to Donald Duck. It still remains exceptionally remarkable, and the audience is left with continuing respect for this powerful South African hero.
The show concludes with an introduction by Desmond Tutu to the famed and kitschy icon Evita Bezuidenhout, a direction which consolidates the political strategy of the production. Evita reigns supreme with her enigmatic presence and over-the-top mannerisms – not even Julius Malema manages to upstage her as she arrests the audience’s attention.
Adapt or Fly is a deliciously humorous yet compelling approach on South African political culture and it challenges our ability to laugh in the face of tragedy. One of the most successfully controversial shows on the South African stage, it deserves to run for years and years, adapting as it flies.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
Adapt or Fly runs at the Theatre on the Bay from 8 January until 25 January 2014.