FOR the first time in over four decades of show business, Pieter-Dirk Uys is shedding the grease paint, false nails, big hair and high heels that have helped mould his career as SA’s foremost satirist, to get a little (or a lot) more personal in his autobiographical one-man memoir, The Echo of a Noise.
“In 40 years of performance, I’ve never done something like this,” says Uys. “I’ve always written shows with characters and had various masks to wear and security blankets to hide behind, but this time it’s just me and you.”
He began to conceptualise the production once he had the name. “I always start with the title,” says Uys, “and I thought: what does it mean? Have I become the echo of a noise of the past? Or am I the echo of a noise reinventing itself for the future? Or is it the noise of my life — the music I grew up with because both my parents were concert pianists and Mozart was my best friend? Or was it the noise from arguments I had with my father? Or was it the noise of the National Party government saying ‘shut up, you may not do this’ and me saying ‘I will, I will, I will’?”At once candid and intimate, Uys shares his memories as only a master storyteller can — with passion, humour, intelligence and great sensitivity — while he reflects on his life, growing up in SA; his parents; his “coloured mother” from Athlone (near Cape Town) who looked after him for years and taught him to “speak Afrikaans properly with all the swear words — and changed so much of my life“; breaking down the barriers of “separate development” with humour; being “half Jewish, half German, half Afrikaans”.
Uys describes his father as a great jazz pianist and organist, an extrovert — Oom Hannes, whom everybody loved, but “Pa was the one I fought with”. “We didn’t love each other; we didn’t even like each other. But when my mother killed herself (she jumped off Chapman’s Peak), it ended our lives. We had to start again, a different relationship, without her.”
The family home was full of music. (Uys’s parents met as concert pianists performing a Mozart double concerto at Cape Town City Hall.) “We had no TV but there were always visitors, conversation and lots of laughter — not because things were funny but because people were in charge of their fear. We were always allowed to be there as long as we weren’t bored, having been told ‘if you’ve got something to say, make sure it’s interesting’.”
Uys arguably has a nose for fear and he takes inspiration from that. “If people are scared of an opinion, let’s explore the opinion. If it offends people I’m glad. I want to offend everybody, at least once, because it means I’ve rattled your cage. I don’t want to insult anybody or demean them, or use all the ’isms.” This is the man who wrote a character into his Sunday Express newspaper column to challenge the status quo in the late 1970s and gave her life in 1982 as Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout, the most famous white woman in SA.
Uys describes himself simply as an entertainer, someone who has to take audiences out of their world and make them recognise things they don’t want to remember, using humour to highlight things that are weird and obscene. He says his father’s cousin was DF Malan, the first National Party prime minister in 1948 — “half the family was in the other camp, so humour was a weapon of mass destruction and distraction”.
“I try not to take sides – it’s about equal opportunity satire, a delicate balance, a constant reinvention. And I take nothing for granted; what was acceptable yesterday might not be acceptable today. That is the bottom line.”
Uys lives in Darling, where his own Evita se Perron venue celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, because he loves the fact that there’s so much fresh air. “I love the people, the community, the children; it’s like a huge family. The cities are just so big and the statistics are so terrifying. At least in Darling there are no statistics and everybody has a name. And it’s just an hour from the airport, which means it’s an hour away from New York.”
Tannie Evita takes centre stage for two or three shows a weekend (90 a year) when Uys has no other theatre commitments, but fans can bank on at least a Sunday afternoon performance or catch her reality show on YouTube. “It’s very much showing off in the lounge — I walk down from my house and do the shows without the paraphernalia of a commercial theatre,” says Uys.
Evita is never seen without heels, except on July 18 when she walks with the local children to the animal shelter to devote 67 minutes to the pets in their care for Mandela Day. “If Evita doesn’t look right, she’s wrong. And I’ve been known to diet for her. I’m 80kg now, and she’s gorgeous at 80kg!” says Uys. “Women must recognise the woman and men must forget the man. That’s always been the key to her look. I spend a fortune on the shoes, because that’s the first thing women look at. If your shoes are kak you’ve lost them. And women also notice the nails, and the jewellery. But now less is more ... I have learnt from Sophia Loren, who at 81 is looking unbelievable, with such class and a wonderful sense of style ...
“I think Sophia Loren saved my life when I was a little boy. I had a picture of Hendrik Verwoerd on the wall because he was a ‘gift from God’ (according to my church and school). Then I found a picture of this beautiful girl in Stage and Cinema magazine and I cut it out and stuck it up on the wall and within two days Hendrik Verwoerd fell off because her legs were better than his. I was 11 and she was 22,” says Uys.
The Echo of a Noise, on the other hand, is 70-75 minutes long — “a Game of Thrones attention span, except there’s no violence and there are no dragons”.
“It’s interesting being on a stage without Evita, but it’s okay,” says Uys. “I feel like a 12-year-old, [I’m so excited] to be able to share all these marvellous moments with an audience ... and stories ... because actually that’s what it’s all about.”
• The Echo of a Noise (PG14) runs at the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 31 to June 18, Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm. Tickets cost from R100 to R160 via Computicket on 0861 915 8000 or the box office on (021) 438-3301