South Africa


Pieter-Dirk Uys revealed: Peeling back the layers

Pieter-Dirk Uys. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Nasief Manie)

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.

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 in time.

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. DM

Pieter-Dirk Uys is currently on a national performance tour. Details are available here.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted