Pieter Dirk Uys describes humour as a “weapon of mass distraction”. Armed with razor sharp wit, infallible irony and a posse of parodies of political figures, Uys’ brand of militant satire exacts guerilla warfare on our complex socio-political history, and bulldozes with ruthless precision through the barricades of what is allowed to be said about our equally complex socio-political present.
Adapt or Fly is a work of technical mastery. Not merely a set of poignant pastiches of politicians, the show develops thematically to express a political insight that is a revelatory experience. Uys creates links between South Africa’s past and its present that are chilling and shocking.
On a minimalist set, Uys takes the audience through a side-splitting yet thought-provoking tour of our turbulent timeline. He agilely somersaults through the spectrum of the aged architects of Apartheid with satire that exceeds mere stereotype. Yes, the evocative embodiments, clownish gestures and elastic facial contortions he uses to deploy these political dinosaurs are enormously amusing, and yet they are so accurate and his text is so thoughtful that the older audience members in particular reported goose-bumps as they were confronted with these ghosts from the darkest recesses of our shared past.
But it wasn’t all ruthless parodies of pre-democratic ‘dooses’. I found Uys’ embodiment of ordinary civilians such as the popular Mrs Petersen particularly poignant. Uys’ female impersonations are quite simply brilliant and this ridiculous, vivacious Cape Flats “auntie” had the audience rolling with laughter at her antics yet also had the power to evoke a stilted and self-conscious silence and even tears. Such is Uys’ utter control that he can skip with ease along the tight rope linking tragedy and comedy.
The title of the show is a parodied reference to the Apartheid slogan “Adapt or Die” and Uys’ cast of ‘dicks and dictators’ has been chosen specifically for their combined impact. Individually, they are breathtakingly good satire. United their power is greater: they nudge the audience towards engaging in broader political perspectives than are immediately physically presented on stage. The individual elements come together to create a work of post-modern pastiche; an engaging and insightful and surprisingly dark sociological study of the progress of pre-democratic to post-post democratic South Africa.
As Uys shifts between his characters he stitches them together with pertinent personal anecdotes, inter-textual links and quick, quirky, quips such as “Hypocrisy has always been the Vaseline of political intercourse”. And the man has his finger on the pulse. The morning following the show the headlines were full of the news that ex-police chief Bheki Cele had been replaced by Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega. The audience at Adapt or Fly already knew: indeed, Phiyega had been one of Uys’ characters (though he confessed he had written out her name on his hand in case he forgot it).
He claims that poking fun at Nelson Mandela is as paradoxical as representing Mother Theresa with a dildo… yet he did allow us a glimpse of a spot-on impression of Madiba. I was surprised however that Uys never directly imitated figures such as Mbeki, Cele, Zuma, Zille and Malema. While through narration and peripheral characters he liberally critiqued contemporary figures and their related social issues he never physically parodied today’s kingpins. This struck me as a little odd, but perhaps he had dismissed them as too easy.
As his anecdotes and glib self-conscious references make apparent, Uys is of course critically aware of his own status as a white previously-privileged Afrikaans male. And though the show is flawlessly provocative and dangerously subversive in textual content and commentary I couldn’t help but feel that this self-consciousness made him a bit PC when it came to representation. Presumably racial representation is still just a little too sticky.
Generally though Uys’ brand of satire is deliciously politically incorrect, while thoroughly fair and impeccably informed. The most popular example of his ability to address a scope of issues through a single voice is of course Evita Bezuidenhout. And naturally this deliciously decadent doyenne of all things controversial steals the show in a captivating cameo.
Adapt or Fly is a thrilling and thought-provoking roller-coaster ride through our tempestuous timeline and an accessible must-see for all and any, whether tourist, South African citizen or – ahem – ex-citizen. Pieter Dirk Uys’ sketches provoke thought and debate long after the house lights have come up.
Pieter-Dirk Uys’ Adapt or Fly runs at the Baxter Theatre 13 – 30 June 2012.
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