Now in his mid-seventies, Pieter-Dirk Uys continues to surprise, most recently with
a one-man memoir of the making of him as an artist, even as he continues to create
new works drawing on the bizarreness and humour of life.
– J Brooks Spector, Daily Maverick, 24 October 2019
A man sits on a high-backed, wooden chair, something like a fancy barstool, at the
centre of a bare stage. He talks about his family, about himself, and about his life.
He is alone on that stage; the lighting is simple, straightforward, unblinking really.
No props, no set.
With a very slight concession to theatrical effects, as the actor comes on stage
to sit on the chair, there is the recorded singing of a boy soprano, an art song,
a familiar lullaby by German composer Max Reger. The recording hisses, pops, and
crackles, and then it dawns on the audience – the boy’s voice is that of the actor,
a man now in his mid-70s, seated in front of us.
Virtually the only other bit of stage business for the next two hours is some fiddling
with a knitted black watchcap. He occasionally puts it on, and then silently, unobtrusively
removes it. A solo actor, seated for two solid hours, largely unmoving, just conversing,
must surely be one of the hardest things for a performer to deliver successfully.
We are all used to televised interviews, conversations – some long, some short –
with celebrities, especially on talk radio or the evening television talk shows:
classic ones like The Jack Paar Show, more contemporary efforts with hosts such as
Christiane Amanpour, Graham Norton, Charlie Rose, and The Late Show under various
hosts, or, locally, Dali Tambo’s People of the South. But just some intense solo
talking on a bare stage, that is a much harder gig.
Yes, Charles Dickens did it, and Mark Twain did it too, but their novels and stories
were famous in nearly every hamlet on the planet. And they had vast global reputations
with their schticks as authors. They were not just talking on and on about their
memories of growing up and coming of age. And in any case, with Twain and Dickens,
it was in an earlier age when amusements were fewer.
Thinking about the “high wireness” of the unadorned solo performance on a stage,
I once watched a performance by choreographer-dancer Bill T Jones. The highlight
of the evening was Jones’s choreography set to Edgard Varese’s early 20th-century
composition Ionisations. That work used non-traditional (but not yet electronic)
sound sources for the soundscape, such as hand-cranked sirens, metal crickets, kazoos,
and slide whistles – and the dancer’s moves were then paired to the specific sounds.
It was entertaining, thoughtful, complex and challenging. Still, Jones had all those
interesting sounds to interact with, in addition to the kinesthetics of his own body.
Similarly, a solo piano recital puts the pianist dizzyingly, dangerously alone in
the spotlight, but it is in partnership with the composers’ works and there is that
amazing prop, the piano, to rely upon.
But for this show, The Echo of a Noise, Pieter-Dirk Uys appears before us, totally
alone, save for that introductory moment of a child’s singing.
Uys, of course, is now a very well-known quantity to audiences throughout South Africa,
in the UK, and in Europe and the US as well. His plays have been performed on many
stages, there have been his television appearances in South Africa and abroad, there
are movies, there are novels, and his commentaries also grace Daily Maverick.
But almost certainly, much of his vast popularity and enduring fame (gaining the
affection of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as the
rest of us) has been built on a steady stream of one-person revues over the years
that have poked fun at – and, not infrequently, savagely excoriated – politicians,
especially those in government in the apartheid era. Then, later, there were impressions
of presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, and “The Mother of the Nation”, for their
failings as well, although Uys had expressed some unease over the optics of a white
man mocking a black political figure.
Over the years, an increasingly important element in his shows became the appearances
of characters such as the over-privileged and startlingly oblivious Sandton kugel
Nowell Fine. Then there has been his masterpiece, the inspired Evita Bezuidenhout.
Besides becoming South Africa’s best-known, albeit imaginary, white woman, Evita
also became the old National Party government’s ambassador to the equally imaginary
African homeland turned independent country of Bapetikosweti.
Evita became the channel through which the government’s absurdities could be presented
as commonplace. Through this character, along with all of his others, along with
those remarkable impressions of political figures with their quirks and mendacities,
Uys had relentlessly pilloried the intellectual, political, and philosophical rot
of the entire apartheid enterprise.
A confession: my own favourite bit from his revues featured Uys just standing on
the stage, reading from the parliamentary record, Hansard. The most especially eye-rollingly
astounding moment would be a recitation of the yearly record (released grudgingly
by the authorities) of the numbers of people who had successfully petitioned to have
their officially defined race classification changed. After reading the data, Uys
would end with, “I’m not making this up, you know.” He used to say the government
always wrote his best material and was virtually his co-author.
Post-apartheid, Uys full-heartedly embraced the miracle of South Africa’s peaceful
transition. But, eventually, he came to loathe, first, the destructive HIV/Aids denialism
of the Mbeki era, and then the waste and outrageous thievery of Jacob Zuma’s administration,
seeing in both a near repudiation of the hard-won promise of 1994’s political miracle.
Mbeki had propelled Uys on a mission of pushing HIV/Aids and sex education in a country
that was ominously shrivelling back from both.
Zuma, however, seems to have led him into a more reflective mode, mining his past
work and his personal past as a way of coming to terms with both the successes and
failures of post-apartheid South Africa. Now, of course, in offstage conversation,
Uys also despairs for the health of democratic values in Britain and the US, half
in jest saying South Africa may end up being subject to sanctions again, only this
time for espousing democracy rather than traducing it.
This year, at 74, Uys has brought out two very different shows from his ever-fertile
mind. First was #He Two, the title a tongue-in-cheek play on some current, very PC
words, in a show that was created in a conversation between the current, live Pieter-Dirk
Uys and his most famous stage guise, along with cameos of some of his other characters.
(The poster for the show plays on the iconic picture American Gothic, with Uys and
Evita in the foreground.)
To achieve this show, Uys drew on a vast archive of film and video material from
his works over the years, constructing an interrogation of his own career. Or, as
he describes this effort, “he and she, with moments of illumination. Just because
she [Evita] doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean she’s not real.”
The second show, as introduced at the beginning of this essay, has been a very different
work. Almost entirely eschewing overt political commentary or his imaginary but real
creations, this time around he focused on the making of Pieter-Dirk Uys as an artist,
writer, and performer – exploring layers of both known and obscured or veiled family
stories and circumstances. Uys brings to life the world of his parents, his home,
and extended family circle – parents Hannes and Helga Uys, his sister Tessa, the
family housekeeper and his protector Sannie Abader, two grandmothers, assorted pets,
and a house filled with pianos, music and secrets.
He slowly peels back the layers, opening some metaphorical (and one very real) cupboards
of secrets for himself and for his audience. One of the great mysteries only partially
unwrapped – and delivered to the audience in the way he slowly gained an understanding
of it – is his learning about his mother’s own life.
She had come to South Africa, not simply as one more German immigrant, but as a young,
gifted Jewish musician, fleeing the impending Nazi apocalypse (even though her parents
had converted to Lutheranism years before the Nazi ascendancy). Unlike so many others,
Helga had escaped Germany in time, together with her beloved Blüthner grand piano
and a portable Underwood typewriter, as part of her personal effects brought on board
her ship to Africa. (Several years ago, this very piano was returned to Berlin and
put in the city’s Jewish Museum.)
But, despite her success as a music teacher and concert performer in Cape Town, Helga
had suffered deeply from the bipolar disorder that eventually led her to suicide,
following a prescription mix-up that made her lose her performer’s touch in her fingertips.
But Uys only gains a fuller measure of understanding – and tells it movingly – when,
years after her death, he finds her suicide note in a desk drawer, together with
all the other family documents, awards, and certificates, accumulated over a lifetime.
Perhaps, too, there was just a touch of survivor’s guilt for having escaped the maelstrom
Uys dissects his and his family’s complex, affectionate relationship (the home servant,
yet Uys’s guide and manager) with family retainer Sannie Abader, the coloured woman
with her strong Malay heritage, who had taken care of the Uys family for decades.
She had unaccountably left one day – presumably over a disagreement over respect
– but then returned to care for Hannes Uys, 24 hours a day, when he lay near death
in his old home.
Then there is Hannes himself. The complexities of Uys’s father and the father-son
relationship are slowly revealed. The man who strictly ruled his household is also
shown to be a talented musician and choir trainer, even as he takes a despised job
in the provincial government to fund his family’s life.
For years he resents his son’s behaviour, professional life, and life choices, even
as he increasingly, but quietly, becomes proud of the son’s growing success. Ironically,
the father’s criticisms provide an essential element for the son’s career. Hannes
tells Pieter-Dirk that he should stop the swearing, the vulgarity, and those angry
frontal assaults on his targets. Instead, he must figure out how to tickle audiences
behind their ears so that they will turn towards Uys and, in that way, allow Uys
to carry the audience with him where he wants to take them.
This reshapes the texture of his satire (even if Uys insists he is not a satirist
but an entertainer), making it more subtle, but even more rapier-sharp in its impact.
In a kind of payback, the son encourages the father to apply – successfully, it turns
out – to become a member of the Publications Control Board, the country’s censors,
on the entirely reasonable grounds he will now be able to see all the newest films,
uncut – and for free. Sold.
We even learn of Uys’s improbable but enduring friendship with the Italian film star
Sophia Loren, a connection begun back when Uys was on a post–matriculation-gift trip
to Europe, and as he tracked down her apartment in Rome from pictures in film fan
magazines. From that beginning, they built a friendship for years thereafter.
In the end, despite all these wonderful stories, out on the stage, it remains just
Pieter-Dirk Uys, sitting on a chair. Then, in a gentle nod towards his most enduring
creation, Uys pulls a tube of lipstick from a trouser pocket and applies the cosmetic
to his lips to give them that unmistakable Evita Bezuidenhout style. He gives a quiet
grin, wipes it off, and returns to being Pieter-Dirk Uys. Through that small gesture,
a recapitulation of a lifetime of work can be read.
This second show is also the basis for the published memoir – maybe the book came
first, or maybe they evolved together – that tells all these stories and more, but
illustrates them both with more detail and a wealth of family photos. The text reads
just like the author is sitting next to the reader, telling all the stories in all
their humour, warmth, and pathos.
Pieter-Dirk Uys is currently on a national performance tour.