REVIEWS OF PIETER-DIRK EISH! IN JOHANNESBURG — FEBRUARY / MARCH 2007
Pieter Dirk: Eish — Evita for President
– Anton Krueger, LitNet, 26 February 2007
I recently saw a scratchy old video copy of One Man One Volt (an Evita show from
1992) and I must admit I was pretty shocked to see what a savage barometer it was
of those tumultuous years of the interregnum. Much of the show would be taken in
very bad taste by today's audiences, I'm sure, such as gags about dogs trained to
hunt blacks, and a wit wolf scoffing the brains of a black baby. Last night's show
was a lot softer than that rather brutal portrait of a psychotic national psyche.
Perhaps bad taste becomes more palatable when it concerns contemporary issues (what
comedian, can, after all, get by without it?), or it could be that Uys has mellowed
over the years? Uys still relentlessly pursues whole pastures of sacred cows (such
as in his truly superb rendition of >Mother Theresa in green Crocs running the switch-board
in heaven), and yet there is something milder about the flavour of his cynicism.
Although he still mercilessly ridicules the people in power, his tone seems warmer,
It's a grand show, in a uniquely South African tradition. Uys starts off with some
of his old-time favourites like Adrian Vlok and Pik Botha and works his way through
a string of post-apartheid politicians, impersonating Zuma, Tshabalala-Misimang,
Selebi, Pahad, Manuel, Asmal et al. Each of these caricatures is distinctly refined
and I admired the performer's whole-hearted embrace of each figure, right down to
the smallest movements of the joints in his fingers. But I think that where Uys really
hits home is with his characterisation of ordinary people. The rich and powerful
whom he presents are little more than sketches, but with his ordinary women — Mrs
Patel, Mrs Petersen and the Jewish liberal whose name escapes me — he manages to
create real characters. One of my favourite new additions must be Mrs Petersen, who
runs a junk shop and introduces the first jokes about Muslims into Uys's repertoire,
including a number on suicide bombers ("Yes, you get 27 virgins, but they're all
Jewish Sandton Kugels").
The infectious laughter came thick and fast, but there were also occasionally deadly interjections
which abruptly silenced the audience into awkward acknowledgement. For example, when
Mrs Petersen mentions the discrimination against coloureds, who are now considered
too white for affirmative action, she points out that the apartheid government made
no such distinctions when it came to employment opportunities or education, and that
the coloureds were also subjected to forced removals back in the day for being too
Perhaps Uys is at his most heartfelt when addressing issues of poverty, and it is
here that one catches a glimpse of his compassionate and generous nature. This is
the other side of this stand-up comedian – he is also a man who poured his time and
money into a single-handed national Aids campaign; who currently helps to train cultural
communities in Darling to support themselves; and who contributes regularly to The
Big Issue, the magazine run by homeless people. Besides dispelling fears by speaking
boldly about issues which many are too afraid to address, Uys is also a true humanitarian.
I was also reminded during the show of just how much South Africans have in common
with one another. Granted, this was a theatre-going community, but still, here were
people from many walks of life able to laugh at the same jokes. In the old video
from '92 there are a few sheepish black faces in the crowd, but last night the audience
at The Market was more black than white. Judging by the relentless laughter, the
continuous applause, and the appreciative running commentary on every punch line
coming from the row behind me, there was a true sense of community in the theatre
which made me feel somehow connected, in some way South African.
This is, after all, one of the remarkable things which theatre is able to do, to
momentarily create a sense of communitas. And in this community the audience is as
important as the performer. Arthur Miller once wrote that theatre practitioners and
theatre-goers form their own community outside of the categorisations of country
and class, and that "the playwright is nothing without his audience. He is one of
the audience who happens to know how to speak. We are a kind of church."
I felt that despite the bad news with which one is constantly being bombarded (for
example, about the recent fumbling with Lotto money earmarked for last year's Pansa
festival, which has still not been released, and Aubrey Sekhabe's expenditure of
the State Theatre budget last year on Gumboots, which meant that the run of Hedda
Gabbler had to be cancelled) — despite talk of mismanagement and financial irresponsibility,
the main component of any theatre remains the audience, and last night an appreciative
audience was out there in full force. Perhaps it is the audiences who hold the real
power. Miller goes on to warn that "if the parishioners are no longer interested
in that church, you know what happens. It becomes a garage or a grocery store" (1996:524).
At the end of the show, Uys invites members of the audience to say what they would
change in the country if they could, encouraging them to take an active part in democracy,
to practise making their voices heard. After having just had a proudly nationalistic
moment sitting there as part of this splendid theatre community, I must admit that
the responses eventually eked out of my fellow audience members now made me feel,
after all, somewhat queasy about being South African: "I want more money," says the
black guy; and "Shoot all the taxi drivers," says the white. "Come on!" I wanted
to shout out from the back row, "What about more money for arts, less military spending?"
But I turned out to be too shy for this bravado.
I thought that these answers revealed much to throw light on the perennial question
of just what it is that's wrong with this country. People are forever accusing external
factors like "government" or "crime" or "whites" or "blacks" or whatever. Everybody
loves to blame these abstract outside forces for their own unhappiness; but these
two answers spoke volumes about what's really at stake here at a gut level among
ordinary people: an insular, selfish closed-minded egotistical thinking which can't
see beyond the petty confines of the smallest circle of one's personal life and private
comforts. I mean, how giving this one guy more money and clearing the taxis out of
the way for the other is going to help improve the country God only knows. Surely
what we need is more generosity, more compassion, more love, more understanding,
more forgiveness, more open-heartedness, more kindness, more warmth. More people
like Pieter-Dirk Uys. And, of course, more money for the arts.
Miller, Arthur. 1996. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Edited with an introduction
by Robert A Martin and Steven Centola. Da Capo Press: New York.
RIGHT from the outset, from the very beginning of his acting career, Pieter-Dirk
Uys has engaged with real life and real issues. Gravely chewing over the contentious
topics of the time, his technique has been to strip away the pseudery and political
cant, embracing our national differences with a message that comes with great gags
and great characterisation. Coupling insolence with clear-sighted analysis, his skill
has been to use a rambling, conversational style to force his audiences into considering
balanced alternatives in all areas of their lives. Any satirist who makes it his
business to hold up to ridicule the vices and follies of his countrymen uses the
tools of irony, sarcasm, invective and wit.
Uys initially practised his craft at The Space Theatre in Cape Town, founded in 1972
by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, with
the active involvement of Athol Fugard. The Space was the first pioneering fringe
theatre in SA, ran on the smell of an oil rag, and was radical in its approach to
all men and women, and to the forces that animated them. Its performing artists including
Uys, Bill Flynn, Barney Simon and John Kani spelled out, in no uncertain manner,
the ongoing tensions between individual rights and social institutions during the
apartheid regime. They confronted the disturbing, the hidden and the suppressed.
On the surface, Uys gradually developed into a perky populist, always concerned and
involved with the scandals, lies and talking points of the day. He dissected the
news on the Rialto and exposed misdemeanours and irrational behaviour, especially
in those holding public office. He taught that a sense of humour encouraged the astute
to see through superficiality, and that laughter defused righteous indignation to
enable the practical thinker to come up with a workable solution for all ills. His
front was a woman of purpose and clout: affable, eloquent and charming. Diplomat
Evita Bezuidenhout was to be an arbiter of taste, a leader of society. If you had
to build a composite portrait of her from the newspaper profiles that proliferate,
you would be presented with an archetypal politician, tough and straight-talking.
But something was happening to Uys as he matured and mellowed. He was developing
a clever, deep and constructive sense of irony. First, as Jung would say, Uys had
to admit to its complexity. Then he grew to know its shadows. This gloom, this darkness,
made him acutely aware of the difference between good and bad, success and failure,
and his burgeoning knowledge and insight made him wholly appreciate the zones of
folly and ignorance. For a period then, Uys forsook the public stage and the spotlight
for the veld and the thorn tree, to talk to schoolchildren in rural areas about AIDS
awareness. A growing and appreciative following attested to the vitality of his educational
Creatively, in PIETER-DIRK: EISH!, now showing at The Market Theatre, Uys has now
reached a pinnacle of supreme artistry. Suddenly there is tension in the body, voices
and personalities of the people he portrays. Although he is to go daringly near the
knuckle, a new detachment and boldness taunts and tests the bogus in our everyday
lives; and a great sadness permeates his lethal wit. Where once Uys used laughter
to seduce audiences into recognising and admitting the unacceptable, now there is,
as Kenneth Halliwell wrote: Evil to look back on, nothing to look forward to, and
pain in the present. This is the skill of a master clown, someone who knows that
comedy does not help you escape from the truth, but highlights it.
Uys challenges assumptions, tests limits and crosses boundaries. His cameos of Afrikaner
and African National Congress politicians, Indian, Jewish and Muslim women, and of
a toothless Cape bergie, express a common nervousness, doubt and lack of certainty.
Here are vulnerable people who are afraid, who feel guilty, and who know they will
be jumped on if they say anything that could be implied as prejudice. Wittiest of
all is a Mother Theresa, very like Whoopi Goldberg, who points out that heaven is
not at all that she was taught to expect, or indeed imagined. She suggests that while
life is full of horror, heaven is too.
This is no gentle ride. As Uys plots the change, he reveals that with it comes loss,
and loss is an uncomfortable feeling. Yet the combative satirist insists on promoting
and not silencing the loud diversity of opinion essential to our new democracy.
Eish! In the midst of pain the Mzansi arts revival lifts our African spirit
– Justice Malala, Sowetan, 19 February 2007
A few friends hauled me out last Wednesday evening to watch Pieter-Dirk Uys’ Pieter-Dirk:
Eish! – Evita for President at the Market Theatre.
I laughed from the beginning, when this accomplished satirist walks in and starts
impersonating Adriaan Vlok washing black people’s feet.
In a week of terrible news, as I point out above in my reflection on the murder of
Thato Radebe, it was good to have our faults and foibles laid bare and laughed at.
The satire is harsh, uncomfortable at times, but supremely entertaining. A laugh
a minute, I urge Sowetan readers to do themselves a favour and go and see this show.
It offers a hilarious, nuanced take on our politics, our history and the many ineffectual
buffoons — such as former National Party foreign minister Pik Botha — who tried to
A few weeks ago I saw Born Thru the Nose, also at the Market Theatre. It was very
good and I was glad to see that it has attracted good audiences. Bheki Mkhwane, who
manages to play six different roles with aplomb, was electrifying.
Another play causing a storm is The Suitcase. This classic, by Eskia Mphahlele and
adapted by actor and director James Ngcobo, seems to be hitting the right note. When
I called to book, I was told that it was full for six nights.
There is so much happening it seems a revival of South Africa’s art is taking place.
One act I would love to see is the Soweto Gospel Choir. The choir recently won the
Best Traditional World Music Award at the 49th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. What
an honour! What prestige!
President Thabo Mbeki was right when he said their achievement was another testimony
to the richness of South Africa and Africa’s contribution to humanity.
“Through their unique African gospel music, the choir continues to bring joy to audiences
around the world,” he said.
I could not agree more. It always saddens me when I see our artists performing to
empty venues. Thankfully, from what I have seen at the Market Theatre this past month,
our people really are supporting our artists.
The shows I have seen are very good indeed and worth every cent you pay.