VISITING Pieter-Dirk Uys at Evita se Peron, surrounded by cats and concrete reminders
of the past in his fossil park, there is no doubt as to who the queen of the establishment
in Darling is. He has installed signs which await the arrival of Queen Victoria’s
statue, but until then he reigns supreme over this quirky patch of paradise on the
West Coast. Listening to him reminisce about his youth and the early roots of his
love of the theatre, the sparkle that has captured audiences young and old over the
years is evident and his exuberance and sense of enthusiasm are contagious.
About 18 months ago the actor and writer decided to take some time off “to re-invent”
as he describes it.
It also marked his 70th birthday, not a momentous event for him, “It meant nothing,
except as a speed limit,” he laughs but he admits as “I have opened the windows in
my mind, other things have come in.” Despite his optimistic nature politics was beginning
to weary even him. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel which you can’t see
immediately because the tunnel is curved,” he chuckles.
His ability to find the thread of humour however tenuous in any situation is one
of the attributes which draws people to him and makes his political observations
so astute and his impersonations so accurate. He has cast aside the characters and
stepped out of the political milieu as he has ventured in to new, far more personal
terrain in his latest production The Echo of a Noise (Pieter-Dirk Uys unpowered at
last!) a phrase that struck him two years ago and led him to wonder what exactly
he was echoing. “Am I the echo of a noise that has happened, or am I the echo of
a noise reinventing itself for the future? Am I the echo of the noise with which
I grew up meaning music, and arguments and a father?”
Perhaps that echo is the reverberating questions that remain with you once you have
engaged with Uys. Ultimately the testament of a great artist is not one that provides
answers but one that leaves you with questions, both of your self and the world around
you. It is the questions and echoes of his youth and formative experiences that he
expands upon in this staged autobiography of sorts.
“The main people in the chorus line are ma and pa,” he says before changing his mind
and saying, “Actually they are the leads and I am the chorus.”
He acknowledges that there were several signposts which changed his life, not the
least of which was the death of his mother. “My mother committing suicide, let’s
not even think that was a small signpost. That was the end of a life, mine as well.”
His voice is laden with emotion as he remembers, “She was an angel, always there
and adding a sense of balance to everything.”
While both of his parents were exceptionally musically talented their attitudes differed
enormously. Pieter and his sister Tessa competed in the annual eisteddfods, both
English and Afrikaans. Their father encouraged their competitive nature while their
mother urged them to enjoy themselves. “If you win you can have an ice cream. If
you don’t win, you can have two,” she would say.
Along with memories of her laughing alongside him in church earning the admonishment
of the dominee, “Mevrou Uys, u kinders lag in die kerk,” it is clear that she is
never far from his thoughts. The profound influence that his father had on his life
is evident in the animated way in which he recalls moments him with so vividly: visits
backstage to the Eoan group after hearing them perform La Traviata at the City Hall,
his advice to him not to be obvious and to explore subtlety in his texts and his
encouragement to never lose hope.
“He had a laugh that used to rattle the windows,” Uys remembers and says that his
father, “knew everything and what he didn’t know he made up. The truth is interesting
but not always entertaining.” Oom Hannes as he was fondly known retired from his
position as a clerk in the Provincial Administration at the age of 50 to start a
music department at Groote Schuur Hoerskool. His father’s love of music began at
an early age and he played the organ from 12, even when his feet never reached the
pedals. It is no surprise then that music has been an integral part of Uys’s life.
“Mozart was my best friend. I couldn’t believe that he was dead, his music sounded
so alive,” he admits.
It is this musical instinct which I think leads to the innate rhythm and unique cadence
of his scripts, a striking feature of Echo of a Noise when it premièred in a packed
Guy Butler auditorium at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2015.
Pieter admits to having disguised himself throughout his life once he “had discovered
his alphabet” and his unpowdered, unadorned presence in a simple black t-shirt has
come at a time when I believe audiences are keen to see him “unplugged.”
As he recounts stories of watching concerts at the City Hall alongside his sister
Tessa, her holding a kitten and him clutching a white rat both acquired from the
pet shop across the road, I catch a glimpse of that Pieter, the young boy who worked
as an usher at the theatre and courted love in contravention of several apartheid
era laws. A boy who was loved and a young man who dreamt and who continues to have
hope and is unafraid to share his vision of hope. This is the Pieter- Dirk Uys you
will see on the stage at the Theatre on the Bay in June.
Towards the end of his father’s life, Uys grew anxious lest he forget some of his
father’s stories and he asked him if he could record them. His father declined with
the response “If you want to keep them, remember them.” He laments, “I didn’t remember
enough” and encourages people to listen to their parents and grandparents. In an
age where we have so many available communication channels and opportunities to voice
our opinions it has become even more important to listen.
Perhaps then we can also be attuned to the echoes of our own histories. In the interim
I don’t mind being privy to the echo of any noises uttered by the man who we know
so well as a writer, activist, actor, entertainer and now eventually as a human being
and a son.