Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 3 September, 2002

South African Greig Coetzee's Edinburgh début in 2000 gained him a Fringe First for his semi-autobiographical play, White Men With Weapons. His offering this year, Happy Natives, is now on show at the Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre.

Coetzee admits in the programme that the play, performed as a two-hander with James Ngcobo and himself taking a total of eight or so roles, could easily have become "a humourless diatribe". It could indeed; it's the kind of "whither South Africa?" piece that asks how integrated the Rainbow Nation truly is now, or whether Boer reactionaries, patronising liberals and even chippy black people are just rubbing together perfunctorily.

But it's a lot cleverer and more complex than it at first appears. Even minor characters whom one might expect to be cartoons acquire depth and humanity. When an armed policeman tersely orders Ngcobo's main character Mto to fetch his "boss", only to be told that no, Mto himself owns this house in a comfortable Durban suburb, we think we're in for a bout of Boer redneckery; in fact, though, the cop turns out quite affable in his brusque way, perfectly ready to talk turkey and share gripes without degenerating into a racist ogre.

This is the way Coetzee's play works throughout its 80 minutes; it's excellent at showing misunderstanding and suspicion as part of the fabric of life, but never becomes bludgeoning. Characters sound familiar fundamental notes, then carry us off along unexpectedly lively tunes, counterpointing seriousness with deadpan cynicism and dramatic irony from which no character of any race escapes.

Mto is asked by a pair of white liberals to join them in making a government-funded theatre piece to attract inward investment to South Africa; consequently, we see the differing perspectives of his neighbours as well as the theatre and government folk. The very title Happy Natives is a disdainful description of the kind of shallow, clichéd spectacle that seems to be expected; and no disrespect intended, but as Mto and his colleagues work on the piece, it's hard not to think of current West End jamboree Umoja, just about to move into Cats' old home at the New London theatre.

In performance, under Christine Harmar-Brown's direction, Mto is the only character who is not visibly a caricature; Coetzee's exaggerated coquetry as the female producer had me especially wary. But this simplicity is the sugar that helps the cunningly blended medicine go down. Nine times out of ten a play like this would just be so much worthy cultural-political exotica, perhaps polished up to be a kind of theatre-in-education piece for grown-ups; Coetzee's gift is to make us genuinely enjoy thinking about such things.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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