When I first saw Pieter-Dirk Uys, very belatedly in 1999's Dekaffirnated, the comedy in his show had the upper hand, although his satire and serious comment on the new "Rainbow Nation" of South Africa were still palpable. Returning to the Tricycle Theatre (as he does almost annually) with a show entitled Foreign Aids, he has put humour, poignancy, accusation and concern in a delicate equipoise.
Uys's best-known creation, Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout, "the most famous white woman in South Africa" and a kind of Afrikaner Dame Edna Everage, is trotted out at the beginning of the second half to poke fun gently but deliberately at president Thabo Mbeki's reluctance to acknowledge the HIV-AIDS link; Evita warns that "for those of us who play Scrabble", "Thabo" is an anagram of "Botha". But the most salient of his several characters is Evita's younger sister, Bambie Kellermann, who makes her début here: the widow of a high-ranking Nazi, and a woman who has worked the sex shows of Europe, Bambie is best placed to intersperse her comments about hubby's old circle of friends with observations on the current viral holocaust. Indeed, she says in as many words what is almost the unsayable: that the First World's slowness in helping tackle South Africa's problem may be motivated by a subconscious desire to treat AIDS as a cull to get rid of a few million developing-world beggars.
This is serious stuff, and I can think of no comparable British figure who could get away with such a show; they would all either dilute the message with too many laughs, or would career into ideological tub-thumping mode, confusing "serious" with "earnest". Uys's secret is simply that he cares about people, and has an easy rapport with them. Thus, on the one hand he can appear not so much to be delivering material at his audience as just chatting amiably with them, and on the other can speak in equally casual tones about his tour of 160 schools in South Africa to spread the message of AIDS awareness. (When his London run ends in August, he will return home to visit another 400.) With children as with adults, he does not preach, he plays, but plays instructively – a kind of political Fisher-Price toy.
It is little wonder that Uys has been invited on more than one occasion to perform his shows to the South African parliament. He inspires the kind of warmth that goes with the phrase "national treasure"; however, unlike most figures who have this dubious label hung around their necks, Uys continues to have far more than merely sentimental value.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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