Grey but unscathed
Tannie Evita emerges from lockdown
That Pieter-Dirk Uys has used lockdown creatively will be no surprise to anyone. But, 40 years after her 1981 debut and following 18 months of lockdown, his alter ego in a frock is back, with a supporting cast that includes Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Boris Johnson and Uys stalwart Nowell Fine, alongside David Attenborough and even William Shakespeare.
Late one Friday night in 1981, I was in the back of a Volksie bus in Joburg. Pieter-Dirk Uys had just triumphed at the Market Theatre on the opening night of a new show, Adapt or Dye, the first-ever performance of what would become a tour de force. Evita Bezuidenhout had just been launched on her brilliant career, and her alter ego Pieter-Dirk was giving me a lift back to my hotel. We talked about the theatre, satire, the politics of the day. I told him I hoped to write plays one day. He turned to me, sitting in the back (I think Tannie Evita may have been in the front passenger seat), and lamented that there was “no one waiting behind me in the wings”. Last week two much older men conversed for an hour about the theatre, satire and the politics of another day, another time, he in his home in Darling, I in my study in Cradock. In between, 40 years of theatre, satire and politics, until it was all interrupted by a lockdown.
The Kombi was “eventually stolen by diewe”, he tells me now. But Evita Bezuidenhout has survived all those decades and 18 months of lockdown. Now having gone grey and sporting a new Helen Mirren hairdo, she’s finally breaking the chains, bursting through the front door and heading back to the place where she belongs: on the stage. The alter ego’s new show is called Lockup/Lockdown and it is opening at Pieter Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town on Wednesday night.
Pieter-Dirk describes the lockdown to date as “19 months of hypochondria”.
“For 40 years while I was doing what I did, bouncing back and forth, up and down, in and out, and every now and then I said to myself, oh God I wish I could just take a year off… well, I think somebody was listening.”
Only it’s been much more than a year.
“The last time I was on stage was Friday the 13th of March 2020. I had just finished at the Woordfees (in Stellenbosch), having done three shows there. Then, in the Friday traffic jam in Stellenbosch, I had three phone calls, and the next six months was cancelled, in the traffic jam.
“Then Pieter Toerien said to me, do you know Broadway has closed down and so has the West End? It was extraordinary seeing the lights go out and just realising that the big difference was that everybody was in the same boat. It wasn’t a case of us and them, because “them” was an invisible virus. So at least one knew that everybody was going through a really traumatic moment. It didn’t make it easier but you didn’t feel so lonely.
“I had to close, the Peron (Evita se Perron in Darling) closed down, everything was cancelled. Suddenly my diary of 235 shows for the year ended up with nothing, overnight, within three days. The Fugard cancelled, Toerien (Pieter) cancelled, London cancelled, everything was gone and I just thought, oh fuck, that’s it, now what do you do.
“And then of course lockdown and you suddenly fall in love with your gardener. And your pets. Looking back, one sort of made it work, but I’m very aware of many people who couldn’t make it work, which made it very upsetting.”
London? “I had a show prepared, an Evita show, but maybe next year, maybe; you know, I pencil things in till two hours before the event, then I can ink it in. You just never know.”
Somehow he, and Evita, managed to cope. Every day turned into a Tuesday.
“So I kept on thinking every day is Tuesday, so I haven’t had a Wednesday or a Monday, so every day for the last 18 months was Tuesday, and so I had to work out my routine which did not include getting on a plane and flying off to a city and doing a three-week show. It was, like, feeding the birds and filling the water bowls and feeding the dogs and touching the animals. And then avoiding the Twitter tramps because they are so horrible and, Tony, reading, because when last did we have a chance to read? God, I read two or three books a week, but really big, thick fat things like Noel Coward’s diaries, but every time he mentions a song I would put on the song, and then he would talk about a play and I would read the play, and it took me two or three months to go through that and I did the same with Marlene Dietrich’s biography.
“Then I started sorting out my archive, mainly the satirical revues I did that are not on my website, so I had to type them out because there was no internet in the Eighties. After doing seven of those shows, taking me from 1981 to 1984, I realised I had a book. It’s coming out in a few weeks’ time because I don’t want to launch that at the same time as the show.”
He’s prepared the book to go on his website, “free to eye”. It will be a 488-page book. “Anybody in the world can go into my website and either print it out or read it or share the sketches with school kids so they can actually do the characters and maybe talk about where those characters were in 1984 and 1985.”
But now, here comes Tannie Evita once more, emerging from lockdown with wisdom softened by the years and a new Helen Mirren look. The show is Lockup/Lockdown: “Lockup is for the politicians and Lockdown is for us.”
Asked if “lockup” also refers to Trump’s infamous campaign against Hillary Clinton, he quickly deflects from Hillary to South African politics. “Yes, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, lock her up, exactly! You know, I do her in the show as well, I might tell you.” Has he done NDZ before? “I haven’t needed to do her before because she wasn’t front in the line, you know, people like Winnie Mandela were much more doable, and Helen Zille also more doable; but suddenly ex-Mrs Zuma is quite a challenge so I’m having fun with that.”
It’s a very strange sort of show, he says, “because you know, everybody’s been through lockdown, everybody’s got experiences, everybody’s got stories to tell, everybody’s got memories, some of them not so good. So I don’t want to do a lecture on how to survive a lockdown, the characters have got to jump out of the madness and the silliness. I think it’s terribly important to allow ourselves to be silly in a state of disaster. It’s the last thing you expect, you know, everything’s got to be soooo serious. So what do you laugh at? Well, you laugh at politicians because they really have delivered the lines. I mean some of them are ludicrous people so at least you can laugh at them.”
Cyril Ramaphosa’s family meetings get a look-in, and at another end of the spectrum a homeless man called Homeless Henry “and seeing how he copes with all this”. Boris Johnson is also among the eight public figures who find their way into the show, as is one of PDU’s idols, Marlene Dietrich. A surprising inclusion is William Shakespeare, “because he wrote his best plays under lockdown in the 17th century so I do him too”. And then there is David Attenborough.
“He’s a marvellous man, he’s an extraordinary man, I can see his anger, I can see his fury, because people are not doing anything. Look, you and I can switch off all the lights in our house and it’s gonna make no bladdy difference. It’s the big corporates and the governments and the military, they must do it and they won’t do it.”
Which brings us to anti-vaxxers, and anger and disdain enter his voice.
“Ag, come on! You know, it’s all such nonsense; people grandstanding for publicity. Listen, if you think God’s going to save you, good luck to you, darling, but one of us is wrong. Either God will save you or God won’t save you. I can’t be bothered with that. You wear a seatbelt in the car, so if you don’t wear a seatbelt in the car you can’t run your car. So I would say that if you don’t have a vaccination against a terribly infectious virus, if you don’t have a vaccination because you don’t want to, well, you must stay at home, you don’t go into a shop, you don’t go anywhere, that’s your choice and your ‘freedom’.”
In the new show, the anti-vax lobby enters in the person of Nowell Fine, who has been in his satirical cast since that first show in 1981. “I’ve got my kugel, Nowell Fine, to sort out what must she dooo.” This in Nowell’s kugel accent, down the phone.
Has Nowell been vaccinated?
“Eventually she does admit that she waited for the 18-year-olds to queue up and so she joined them, she wasn’t going to join the 90-plus queue with all the walkers and the wheelchairs.
“Tannie Evita has been vaxxed, she’s had two, and she’s also changed. So I start the show with Evita in March 2020 with the look that everybody has known since 1981, and I end the show with her now. She’s gone grey, she’s got short hair, she looks like Helen Mirren, or as she says, Helen Mirren now looks like her.”
It’s not as if he hasn’t had the time to think about all his characters and how they would deal with the pandemic.
“I’ve been working at it for nearly a year, the sort of material that one has to bring up to date literally on a daily basis because things move so quickly in spite of the fact that we move slowly because we’re just sitting at home. I don’t think there will be a new normal, it won’t be new and it won’t be normal, so we’ve got to be prepared to live with this thing for a long time like we’ve lived with the ANC for a hell of a long time.”
Naturally, the pending election is ripe for satirical plundering. “It’s a very interesting experience to see these superspreading rallies all over the country because I think by the 2nd of November we’ll be back to Level 5. They don’t give a damn about it, they just want the votes so they can get the password and the keys to the safe.”
There are no immediate plans to revisit cancelled stints in London thwarted by lockdown and travel restrictions. “I have spoken to people in London about next March or May. It’s interesting talking to them about the theatre because they’ve got a huge list of young performers who have been waiting for two years to get a chance so they must get priority as well.”
His priority for now is to get Evita back on stage, not elsewhere in the world, but at home. And that, for 40 years, has been and still is where our national treasure belongs. Nobody puts Tannie Evita in a corner.
I did “write plays one day” but only decades later. I happen to have my own experience of how Pieter-Dirk Uys supports others in the industry, humble though they might be by comparison. A few years ago he gave me, gratis, the use of his theatre stage in Darling for a reading of one of my plays. Which gives me a chance, in public, to say: dankie, skat. En Evita ook. DM/ML
Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Lockup/Lockdown shows for a limited season, from 19 October to 6 November 2021, at Theatre on the Bay. Tickets are available at R200 each (sold in pairs only). All bookings through Computicket.
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