BILLY SUTER interviewed master satirist PIETER-DIRK UYS when he was touring in 2017 with The Echo of a Noise. This riveting,one-man memoir saw the now-74-year-old Uys sit on a barstool, open his heart and talk about his private and public life, leading the audience into his inner-sanctuary with stories that evoke surprise, laughter and tears. Uys is now touring a new show, #HeTwo, which is at Pietermaritzburg’s Hexagon Theatre from November 14 to 16, and Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from November 19 to 24. It features Uys as himself and as his iconic, drag alter-ego, Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout.
TELL US ABOUT “THE ECHO OF A NOISE”? WHERE DO YOUR MEMOIRS START AND END? AND WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT MIGHT SURPRISE US?
It’s the first time I’ve ventured onto a stage ‘unpowdered’! No security blankets of wigs, lipsticks, politics or punchlines. Just the story behind the stories.
I suppose it starts and ends with now – looking back and looking forward. I find many surprises in the reactions of audiences.
It is probably the most universal thing I have ever written, as everyone shares a father, a mother, a childhood, dreams, pain and joy – in different ways to mine. Yet my story seems to have many windows for people to look through and see their own view.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO CREATE THIS MEMOIR – AND WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND MOST CHALLENGING AND/OR CATHARCTIC ABOUT IT?
The title set it off: what does it mean? Was I the echo of a noise from the past? Or the echo of a noise reinventing itself for a future? Or the noise of forbidden laughter then – and now?
And then my father stepped into my picture, and my relationship with him and our housekeeper from Athlone, Sannie Abader, became the backbone to the story.
I see the piece guided by the small signposts that changed my life – a word there, a punishment there. And mainly the sound of laughter even when nothing was funny.
WHAT DO YOU CHAT ABOUT IN THE SHOW?
I think now that I’ve passed that road sign that says You can speed over 70 now. I can leave the security blankets of characters and the disguise of monsters, madams and moffies, and just tell the stories behind the story.
I am amazed how many people are sharing my stories of being a young boy in that old South Africa, fighting with a strict father, adoring a mother who allowed me to enjoy and not to fear.
How the bumble-bee of theatre stung me and changed my life. How censorship from a humourless government gave me the courage to use their violence and reinvent humour at their expense.
How a beautiful film star in Rome became my friend and mentor. And how hanging onto the southern tip of Africa by Evita’s fingernails still fills me with the delight and excitement I have enjoyed throughout my life – being unemployed, unapologetic, untidy and unafraid; never shy to admit that my glass will always be half full and never half empty.
WHAT SORT OF THINGS HAVE YOU HEARD FROM AUDIENCE MEMBERS AFTER THEY SAW THIS SHOW… ANY ONE COMMENT IN PARTICULAR, PERHAPS, THAT STANDS OUT?
An 11-year-old chappie waited for me after a show, and once we did the selfie, he said: “I loved the pictures”. I said: “There are no pictures on the stage”. He said: “No, the pictures in my head”. And once an old lady just shook her head at me and said: “No, you’re definitely mad”. Good observations from both!
OF ALL YOUR MEMORIES OF YOUR PARENTS, OF WHICH ARE YOU MOST FOND?
Music. They were both pianists and I grew up with Mozart as my best friend. Even today I have a soundtrack in my head while I do everything. It creates the atmosphere for my life, especially when I write.
WHAT DO YOU MOST MISS FROM CHILDHOOD – AND ALSO YOUR TEEN YEARS?
I miss nothing because it’s as pointless as tweeting about colonialism! But then I did miss my hair when I started losing it at the age of 18. But imagine what a different life I would have had with thick, long, glossy, blonde hair?
And maybe I was fortunate to be so nervous about sex, otherwise a virus would have got me in the early 1980s.
IN “THE ECHO OF A NOISE”YOU TOUCH ON YOUR SWOONING OVER FILM STAR SOPHIA LOREN. TELL US ABOUT THAT – AND HOW YOU GOT TO MEET HER.
I cut a picture of her out of Stage and Cinema magazine in 1957 and stuck it up on the wall of the room next to that gift from the gods, Hendrik Verwoerd… and the next day he fell off the wall and stayed off! She stayed on – and saved my life.
I met her in Paris in 1975 and when she walked into her lounge it was as if a picture had floated off my wall.
We talk often and she’s in the documentary film released last year. That’s a dream come true!
WHERE AND WHEN WAS “THE ECHO OF A NOISE” FIRST STAGED?
It was meant to be a once-only performance at the 2015 National Arts Festival, in the 1000-seater Guy Butler Auditorium – but when that huge audience rose and screamed as if I’d won the Soccer World Cup, I realised that here was something worth pursuing.
I have performed it in Pieter Toerien’s Joburg and Cape Town theatres and did one performance in Berlin a few months ago. It is going be part of my life for the rest of my life.
DOES THIS WORK PERHAPS MARK A NEW WAY FORWARD FOR YOU ON STAGE? ARE YOU PERHAPS PLANNING TO EXPLORE NEW THEATRICAL THEMES?
I always hope to surprise not only my audience but myself. The major focus on local politics is a politically-correct minefield and less attractive – and, frankly, too predictable.
So I prefer telling stories in the lives of the people and not just the spin from the mouths of the politicians. I have counted up to 80 characters in my satirical cluster since starting in 1981 and I have a few more getting ready to pop out of the egg!
And Evita Bezuidenhout is alive and well!
DO YOU STILL GET OPENING NIGHT NERVES AFTER SO MANY YEARS ON STAGE?
I am excited on opening nights, because excited means I can do it; nervous means I can’t. The feeling is still the same: you want to ‘kots’ and ‘poep’ and run, but there’s a smile on your face and your tail is wagging.
OF THE MANY CHARACTERS YOU HAVE PLAYED OVER THE YEARS WHICH THREE ARE YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITES?
That’s like saying to a parent: which child is your favourite? I think my female characters are the most entertaining – Nowell Fine, Mrs Petersen, Bambi Kellermann and, of course, that most famous white woman in LuthuliHouse.
WHAT CHARACTER YOU HAVE PLAYED HAS BEEN THE MOST DIFFICULT TO PORTRAY?
I think playing Pieter-Dirk Uys has been the most difficult, and so I had to create him to give me the courage to portray him clearly and with confidence.
WHAT IS THE BEST COMPLIMENT (AND ALSO THE MOST NOTABLE PUTDOWN) YOU EVER GOT FROM SOMEONE YOU SATIRISED?
When dressed as Evita Bezuidenhout, I whispered to Nelson Mandela “President Mandela, every time you see me, I am dressed as Evita!” He whispered back: “Don’t worry, Pieter, I know you’re inside!”
WOULD YOU LABEL YOURSELF AS SOUTH AFRICA’S MOST FAMOUS DRAG ARTIST?
I hope not. I have great respect for classy drag and how much work and detail goes into it. My venture into female impersonation is just that: I am performing a character.
The reality of Evita Bezuidenhout is surreal and thrilling: just because she doesn’t exist doesn’t mean she is not real. And when I perform her, I must make her so real that the women recognise the woman and the men forget the man.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I get out of the swimming pool when it rains, in case I get wet.
I avoid crowds, except in the theatre when we are happily divided by a safe ‘fourth wall’
I am intolerant of lateness dressed up as style, and stupidity disguised as policy. I have great respect for any faith and carefully suspicious of all religions.
I’ve been unemployed since 1975 and so had to become my job.
YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON A STAGE?
Having to perform other people’s bad writing and make it sound better. I don’t do that anymore. Rather stick to my own weaknesses and make them strong and memorable.
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY NEW SHOWS OR PROJECTS THAT YOU CAN TELL US ABOUT?
I am always working on three or four things at the same time… so that if I stall on the play, I pick up on the novel. And there’s always that wonderful moment of an old Bette Davis movie and no work.
HOW HAVE AUDIENCES CHANGED OVER TIME?
I always believe that every audience is unique. And because so much of my work is based on and inspired by the events of the day, the emotional temperature varies from sketch to sketch.
In the old days of darkness, the few theatres I was allowed into – The Space, the Market and the Elizabeth Sneddon in Durban – protected the small flames of free speech. There we played to the converted.
But slowly I managed to subvert the resistance and then played the Pretoria Opera House and the Nico Malan in Cape Town.
I understood my collegues’ discomfort at not boycotting those venues, but that is where I needed to be: in the armpit of the enemy, making them laugh at themselves and maybe realise how ridiculous their superiority was in the eyes of relatively sane people.
Today what I say on stage is only my opinion and voice because happily everyone has the freedom of expression in tone and tweet.
OF ALL THE MANY FAMOUS FOLK YOU HAVE MET, WHAT THREE PEOPLE HAVE MOST LEFT AN IMPRESSION ON YOU – AND WHY?
Nelson Mandela and his sense of humour that healed a world; Sophia Loren with her common sense and kindness that stole my heart; and Desmond Tutu whose leadership by example proves that there is goodness galore if you look for it.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘VASTLY OVERRATED’?
Social media. The marriage of Putin and Trump. BEE. Game of Thrones. South Africa’s leaders.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU?
Are you related to P W Botha?
WHAT TRAITS DO YOU MOST DISLIKE IN OTHERS?
Noise. Racism. Dom-astrantheid. Moaners. Those who dislike cats.
WHAT ARE TWO OF YOUR MOST TREASURED MATERIAL POSSESSIONS?
My British Airways silver Avios-card. The computer stick with all my plays on it.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE THREE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
Sorry. Nothing to list here. What you see is what I’ve got.
TWO HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER?
Tonight’s show – because every show is a first and a last one, because every show has a different audience, so how can it be the same? I have done over 7000 performances alone on stage and yet each one is the highlight of my life. Till the next one.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE WRITTEN ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?
“At least he had good legs.” – Evita Bezuidenhout