Pieter-Dirk Uys can be accurately described as a national treasure. For the past five decades, he’s been taunting the authorities and entertaining audiences with his sharply observed plays, revues and films. He’s created many memorable characters, most notably Evita Bezuidenhout, who has become as much part of the national psyche as Uys himself. If ever theatre has been used to hold a mirror up to South African society and show off all its blemishes to comic effect, it’s been through Uys’ finely-honed social observations and comedic instincts. In his latest show, the highly-acclaimed one-man memoir The Echo of a Noise, Tannie Evita is there only in spirit as Uys takes audiences on a more personal and intimate journey. Gone are the masks, the eyelashes and the personas, and Uys takes audiences on a journey into his public and private life. He shares the personal mythologies and histories that have led him to the stage, and tells of the influences in his life – his father Hannes and mother Helga, his grandmothers, his teachers and his passions. Uys describes it as a tale of “a boy who was stricken by the disease to please from an early age, overshadowed by church and school and a very strict father.” The Echo of a Noise has played to sell-out houses both at its premier at the National Arts Festival and the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town. Now it’s on in Johannesburg at the Studio Theatre Montecasino until 9 April. David O’Sullivan talks to Pieter-Dirk Uys about his new show, which he’s Studio Theatre Montecasino described as one of the funniest and emotional he’s yet written.
Pieter, the Echo of a Noise has been performed to great acclaim, and now it comes to Johannesburg. It’s described as a ‘one-man memoir’. What does that mean?
Well, for the first time ever I have walked away from all my security blankets – there are no false eyelashes, no high-heeled shoes. There’s not a Zuma or a Botha, or even Evita Bezuidenhout – although there is a hint of her because basically it is the story behind the stories. I never thought I would really tell the story of my relationship with my father and my survival through the years of National Party fake news which actually gave me all the material that I needed to make fun of them in those old apartheid days. And so this is really and truly the first time I am unclouded rather than unplugged and really it is about my father and also our maid – it’s funny to call her that because Sunny Abada was like my Cape Flats mother for so many years. So I had extraordinary influences from her and also from the reality of being a young, white, Afrikaans, Calvinist South African boy who just had to try and find his own way through the quicksand and the minefield. So The Echo of a Noise was an interesting title, but I am not sure what it meant. Did it mean that I am the echo of a noise past, meaning “has been” – which is possible? Or am I the echo of a noise re-inventing itself for the future, which is also possible? Or it is the echo of the noise of laughter at things that were not allowed to be laughed at? It could be all those things. But it is just me and the audience.
Well I have been re-reading your memoir ‘Between the Devil and the Deep’ and I have got a lot glimpses into the struggles of you as a young boy. One of the images that was quite stark for me was of you as a young boy in church, the Dutch Reformed Church, singing in the choir and in the front row is Hendrik Verwoerd and his wife. And immediately we’ve got this clash of this youngster who will one day become rebellious and speak out so vocally against the system that this man created, and yet there you are singing for him at an early stage. What are your memories of that?
Oh vivid, extraordinary. I mean there we were in the choir, my father was the organist in the church and we would sing very beautiful classical choral music which actually were based in Catholic religion which was a wonderful thing to know because my father translated them into Afrikaans and they were sung in a Dutch Reformed Church environment which was so anti-Catholic, in fact anti so many things. So there was our Prime Minister and his wife and we sang the national anthem and well you know – that’s what it was. You must remember that in those days there was no television, there was no freedom of expression, and I grew up in a family that really and truly had very little energy for politics because they were musicians, pianists, and so it was Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and not Verwoerd and Jan van Riebeeck. And yet ironically I also had a photo of Dr Verwoerd on the walls of my room because we were just, I suppose, brainwashed at school and even in church that Verwoerd was a gift from God. And my friends had pictures of Verwoerd on their walls, but they also had pictures of rugby players as well. But I did not go that far. However, I did find a picture of a very beautiful Italian film star called Sophia Loren, and I put her on the wall next to Hendrik Verwoerd and the next day Hendrik Verwoerd fell off the wall. So Sophia Loren saved my life.
What was it like in the home environment? You describe your background as being Afrikaner Calvinist and Calvinist implies that there were strict rigours, but you’ve got these two parents who are musicians and one expects that this allows them to be more open-minded and more creative. Your sister, Tessa, was also an incredibly creative person. Were there artistic freedoms, even as a youngster or was your upbringing terribly Calvinistic and structured?
No, it was not structured in that way. It was disciplined, it was respectful, and as kids we just did not ask questions. I think many young people in those years just were not free to ask questions. I just wished that I had because there were so many areas of my family life that I still don’t know about I mean the irony is that I honestly know more about Sophia Loren’s family than about my own family. There was the fact that my mother, only after she died did I find out that she was Jewish. I mean, come on, how crazy is all that? And yet when I look back at her relationship with me and my sister and the wonderful freedom she gave us through her sense of humour and without actually spelling out the reality of having to leave Germany because she was Jewish in 1937, and coming to Cape Town and the first piano job she got as a professional pianist was on the stage of the City Hall playing the two Mozart piano concertos with a pianist called Hannes Uys – and that’s where she met my father. You know, so my constant reminder of that is to thank two people for being here today. The one person I thank is Amadeus and the other is Adolf. So actually no I must say my family had a very open-minded and enjoyable relationship with us as children, but it was hard work. We weren’t rich. I certainly never thought that we poor but we certainly did not waste money or show off, my father was very strict on those things. So yes, listen, I come from a very happy background and the change in my life came purely because I think I realised that the life I was leading was not the life that was acceptable in a context of goodness. I mean how can people be treated as second-class citizens because they were not white? I think that is the first question that bothered me. In Sunday School, the NG Kerk dominee said you know if we were good Afrikaans children we would go straight to heaven, and then somehow he said that all the good little black children would also go straight to their heaven. I think that this was the first time I had to try and work out why there were two heavens.
What was it about your upbringing that allowed you to question, and allowed you to rebel. You had this daily drug that you called the theatre, but against you father’s wishes you go and enrol at UCT, the liberal, communist institution and not Stellenbosch University. Why do you think you were able to break the shackles like that?
You know I think it was just a very childish thing. I think I just wanted to piss off my pa. I think I wanted to irritate all the Ooms and all those people in the family that had their stiff upper lips, and they were all involved in the National Party. My father’s one cousin was Dr D F Malan, I mean that’s where his part of the family did come from. He also did not like them quite frankly. My father had no time for this Broederbond stuff. But again no politics was discussed at home. I just think it was…I wish I had an answer to that, because people say ‘why did you do it, did you just realise’? But no, it was just instinctive, I think I just felt that was one way to get a reaction out of people, a reaction of irritation, which meant that I was winning some battles. And I think I was being very silly in the beginning, even in my satirical work I was making fun of obvious things and using swear words to attract attention. But one thing sort of led to another and eventually I found that definition of 49% anger and 51% entertainment, because most of my material is anchored in the anger of paralysis. What can I do as one person in this country when so many things are going wrong because so few of us are standing up and saying what can we do to change things?
"If you can't cure, you can care. And that really goes a long way." – Pieter-Dirk Uys #Whispers
— Megan van Wyk (@miss_meg7n) March 27, 2017
How are you addressing these issues in The Echo of a Noise? Do you spend much time in the show dealing with this stage of your life?
Do you know, I spend a lot of time actually trying to navigate myself as a person through the minefield of fear and of questions. And suddenly the big change in my life came when I did go to UCT to do a BA Drama because I wanted to be a teacher. And Pa was very pleased, my father was very thrilled about that, and then I got diverted into BA Drama, meaning I suddenly ended up in drama school, meaning that my father blew his top because he said “this is not a future”. And I think that’s where the first cracks started coming. Then again my lifestyle was definitely not something that my father really appreciated in any way and I had friends that were very verbal and very camp and sometimes extremely homosexual, which was also illegal and something never spoken about. So I suppose that’s where the break came, and in fact eventually my father threw me out of the house when my writings and my plays attracted the attention of government and police. But then we found each other again. You know once a cheque came in at the end of a week, after a week’s season in a theatre and it was a hell of a lot of money, and suddenly my father realised ‘oh my gosh, he’s making money doing these terrible things’. And he said to me ‘come home’ and so we started a new relationship. So all that is the journey I take the audience through, although again I must tell you the wonderful discovery for me is that my story which for me I honestly did not think I would do other than one night at the festival, has appealed to so many hundreds of people who have come to me and said ‘Do you know it’s my story as well. I saw my father, I saw my mother, my sister, my fears.’ I suddenly realised this is a totally universal backbone to so many peoples’ lives. We all have been there because of our family lives and we see what we remember and we see what we’ve missed. Many people actually miss family life today because it’s not what it used to be, Families are not sitting around a dinner table any more, they sit in front of their cell phones. It’s wrong!
— FDC Theatre Awards (@FDCTheatreAward) March 19, 2017
Do you confront the issues of when you were performing and when your plays were starting to get banned, starting to get recognised? There was a notoriety and popularity that came with that. Do you talk much in the show about those times? On one level you’ve got the Publications Control Board as the best PR agent you’ve ever had, but at the same time it’s very frightening. You’ve often spoken about the Gestapo-like security police barging in and shutting down productions. I would imagine on one level there’s deep fear of the consequences, and at the same time it’s the kind of reaction you would want to provoke. What is that like and is that addressed in the show?
Well you know the fear is a very dangerous thing because I then started realising that being a white South African gave me an extraordinary amount of strength to push the edge of the envelope. I realised then that if I was a black person I would not have that freedom. That was also something that inspired me to be extremely careful. And I think using characters, and I think again Evita is an extraordinary clown character because the moment I created her, and there she was a member of the National Party with her husband an MP as my enemy number one. Evita used to make statements to the media that Pieter-Dirk Uys should be locked up because he was a communist and a terrorist and he wears women’s clothing and he’s ridiculous and he is “onkristelik”. I had many confrontations with people in uniform and people who were obviously there to do damage to me when they suddenly started giggling and said “could we have Evita’s signature?”. I don’t know quite how to explain that but I suppose one tried to use the cartoon and to use a punch line to save one’s own life. And again I was very careful about not being a great freedom fighter. Instinctively I did not take sides. I was not a liberal against the National Party government and I wasn’t a Broederbonder against the liberals. I gave everybody a chance to make a fool of themselves. And I think that certainly gave me a centre line to walk and not suddenly trap myself in a political cul-de-sac.
Well I was a young journalist starting to make my way in the world of journalism in the time that Adapt or Dye was coming out. It was also at a time when people who spoke out were immediately silenced by either being banned or being locked up, or they went into exile. And I remember so starkly that you were one of the few people who could criticise government and almost get away with it. There was a political statement that was being made that was so powerful at time when there was so much silence. You were clearly aware of the incredible role that you were playing at that time.
I was not aware of it at all. I was completely oblivious to any of that. You know, I just knew from a performance point of view my show must go on. From a performance point of view I must not be late. From a performance point of view I must be arrested on stage or murdered on stage, unless the lights are on so at least the audience gets their money’s worth. And I had to keep a sense of humour, realising that laughing at these people actually makes them very uncomfortable and they really don’t know how to fight. We’ve seen it with Donald Trump. Make jokes about Donald Trump and he tweets all night, which means we can keep him awake for the next four years. It is a wonderful weapon of mass destruction, humour. Again I make the difference between comedy and humour. Comedy is the joke. Believe me there is nothing funny about apartheid. There is nothing funny about the terrible things that apartheid was doing to so many people, but there was something very, very darkly humorous about the lies and the publicity and the pomp. The terrifying brainwashing that was happening through the church and through the education system and through the fear that people were being confronted with. So now that I’ve got answers to all those questions, now in these days that we speak, but believe me, at the time I did not analyse it. I really did not give it any intellectual basis. I just knew instinctively as a performer what works and what doesn’t work. I was also very careful not to go the Penny Sparrow route because the reaction was the same as it was here. I keep on saying to people, if I had said the things straight out against the apartheid government I would have been stopped. And that’s the one thing that my father taught me, and that is what I also talk about in The Echo of a Noise and that is my father gave me a small signpost that changed my life. He said to me at one stage ‘Don’t always stick your finger in my eye, don’t always offend me within ten minutes. Why don’t you tickle me behind my ear with that finger and then I will turn my head around to see what is giving me such a good time and my eye will find your finger’. In other words, don’t always be obvious, find interesting ways to diffuse the tension. Like using Evita Bezuidenhout, she looks like a very sexy Afrikaans lady with good legs, and while you are thinking that, she is saying all the things you don’t want to hear. So it was a way of finding a dry pathway through the marsh land of prejudice, and that’s where I have my story and my dad’s involvement with what I was doing.
In The Echo of a Noise you said that Tannie Evita doesn’t make an appearance and that none of those characters that were so important in that you were able to express the bigotry, the racism through these characters and bring it to stark prominence, they are not in the show itself. Do you talk much about them in The Echo of a Noise?
Of yes, of course, they all sort of pass through and pass wind, and pass through the picture. I mean one is very aware of their power and also the fact that their involvement with my alphabet was very important. I mean I had to focus on exactly the reality of what was happening. But I think it was the anarchy, the sexual anarchy where I play different sexes, political anarchy where I took different sides and the nonsense of both sides, the liberal side and the totalitarian side. And really to be the big word that had to make sense is the word ‘entertainment’, not speech-making, not attack, not wagging the finger – I let P W Botha wag the finger, that made people laugh. But the fact that he wagged his finger and said things that he was saying on television made people laugh and made people say ‘hey, but he said that, that’s not right’. And then they would start thinking. I mean usually one would always hope that people would leave with some thought in their mind that we can and must do something where we are. We can’t wait for politicians to change the world. Nelson Mandela was still a banned person in a dark corner, we didn’t even know what he looked like. We did not know that there was light at the end of our tunnel because our tunnel was curved. So really and truly during those years I never thought for a moment that we would get away with apartheid. I thought that we were in for the most terrible bloodbath. God, I am so glad that I was wrong.
Well there were so many incredible shows which were able to put a mirror up to South African society and expose not only the madness but also the evils that lay within it. When you look at society now and you look at the political developments, when you look at the political stage at the moment, there is so much for you to say and do. Are you ever tempted to get back into the satirical review situation and get those characters commenting about what Jacob Zuma is saying? I mean I look at what he was saying in Parliament in that it will be a “funny democracy” if he sacks (Social Development Minister) Bathabile Dlamini. I just thought how much you would have been able to use something like that in a stage show.
That is so funny ‘it will be a funny democracy if he sacked Dlamini’ – I mean, it’s wonderful. That’s why I don’t have to make up anything. That’s why I don’t pay taxes, I pay royalties. It is just too good to be true. I mean the material is brilliant but it is so different. It is material of corruption, of carelessness, of arrogance in a democracy. That is not the same as the material that led to the death of people on a daily basis, the crippling of people’s minds, the destruction of peoples’ dreams and the legacy of horror that we still sit with today. So I am very careful not to say that I am back in business again because it’s the same. It’s not the same. And I think the person that I point my finger at the most nowadays is not the politicians but the voter who is not doing his job. The voter who doesn’t vote, the voter who doesn’t do homework, the voter who doesn’t understand who is in politics and just says ‘what the hell, I’m not going to be bothered’. You know every democracy deserves the government they get and we have certainly deserved the government we have at the moment. I do also know that there are some very, very good people in the African National Congress who are deeply concerned about what’s happening. And let us hope that they will work hard behind the scenes to try and find a way to suggest that Mr Zuma, our President, may retire for health reasons with full amnesty and go back to Nkandla. And we can start from scratch and sort the world out. But I am happy to tell you that Evita Bezuidenhout is a member of the ANC and they deserve her.
What was it like preparing for The Echo of a Noise, writing it, confronting the fears of the past? What kind of a process was this for you? Was it an emotional process for you?
You know the most important discipline in structuring this piece is to not put everything in it. I’ve got so many stories and terribly funny moments. Listen, I must tell you that The Echo of a Noise is probably the funniest piece of work I have done for a hell of a long time because it is about all the things that people recognise. All the really absurd and wonderful things that happen in families and to young people and to parents and children. But I couldn’t put everything into this, I had to really discipline myself to bring it in at about 90 minutes because you can’t go on for ever. That was the biggest discipline. There were moments that I suddenly stopped and I just thought ‘oh, I don’t want to go here’, when I talk about my mother’s suicide. I mean that is really, truly in any persons’ life where that happens, you never recover from something like that. But it was important for me to share moments like that and there are moments like that in the piece, yes definitely, have to be.
Alone on the stage, Pieter-Dirk Uys speaking as he opens his heart and talks about his private & public life in The Echo of a Noise. pic.twitter.com/EIbDxm01Rq
— Craig Henley (@cchjnb) March 16, 2017
And do you have moments, one of the funniest things that I found when I was re-reading your book. I had forgotten you had to go to court, and at issue was the meaning of the word “genotskrots”. How mad is that? A word you had invented, and now they wanted to ban the word because it was seen as obscene.
Yes, that’s a wonderful piece in The Echo of a Noise. This marvellous fan club that I built up called the Publications Control Board, and they would not leave me alone. And that’s where my father actually in one of those conversations we had said to me ‘don’t take them seriously’ because by that time he was also a member of the censor board. I mean isn’t it wonderful that I got my dad to become a member of the censor board while they were actually banning my plays? And he actually said to me ‘don’t be frightened of them, they are idiots, they don’t know what they are doing, make fun of them. MAKE FUN OF THEM!’ And so I think that is the one reason that I actually then learned the whole Publications Act by heart, the whole law, I learned it like a monologue from Shakespeare and I could trap them with their own law. You see this is the thing that you must realise even today looking at Minister Dlamini, politicians don’t know their laws. I mean you can really catch them out constantly. And so this one play, Die Van Aardes van Grootoor, which was filled with swear words, except they were not swear words but ordinary words that sounded rude. Words like boerewors – you say that with a gender and you can be arrested, you know boere wo-o-o-o-rs. And then of course making up words that sounded rude in Afrikaans, like genotskrots. Well it means nothing but, my god – hy gryp aan haar genotskrots. It really and truly had some great potential. And the Censor Board fell for it and I mean it just made for wonderful and uproarious laughter at their expense. That was the drug of choice. The drug of choice was laugh at your fear and make that fear less fearful.
So The Echo of a Noise in conclusion, Pieter, is called a one-man memoir. It’s not a play, it’s not a review, it’s a memoir on stage. You say it’s one of the funniest pieces of work, at the same time I would imagine that there is a sub-plot to that and there is a lot of seriousness to it as well.
Well it is extremely serious because it allows itself to smile at the pain. And I had to find a word for it. I couldn’t call it a review. People ask if I play the narrator. I don’t play anything, I’m me, that’s me there. So it is really and truly the first time that I am there as they say ‘the emperor has no clothes’ and you’re damn right, this emperor sits there with no clothes on. It’s been a fabulous experience and I really look forward to bringing it to Johannesburg. It’s never been there and so I am really looking forward to my season at the Monte Casino Pieter Toerien Theatre at The Studio.