Pieter-Dirk Uys, known for his sharp-witted satire and colourful characters (who to the delight of many an audience calls a political spade a shovel), steps out behind the powder and personas to reveal the man that is the commentary in his beautifully nostalgic one-man memoir, The Echo of a Noise.
Recently addressing a group of drama students, he implored them, “The last thing we want is another f*cken actor. Are you going to be another actor? Don’t! If you are going to be a unique voice in theatre, you will be and the world will listen to you. But don’t be a copy, you’ll stand in the queue with lots of copies and copies never work.”
With that creative insight and understanding of uniqueness as the backbone to his career, just another actor is the last thing you will find onstage in The Echo of a Noise. Uys in fact shares that one of his drama lecturers told him, “oh darling, you’ve got no talent, you must become a stage manager”. Taking that advice, he became a fully qualified stage manager, embracing the most critical and too often overlooked job in the industry. That initial insult turned out to be a blessing that has since empowered and propelled him to become so much more than just another actor, that and being unemployed since 1975, which Uys jests “does help! I am my job, I don’t wait for a job.”
Over the years he has been described as an actor, and also an author and an activist. He however doesn’t relate to any of these labels. “I’m an entertainer”, he unwaveringly declares, “that’s what I want to be known as.”
When talking to him about the importance and the place of theatre, one soon realises why the title of entertainer is indeed the perfect fit. Uys revels in the power of storytelling.
“Theatre has been around for more than 2000 years, and it adapts to the good times and the bad times. It reflects the cracked mirror of society. We – who actually ignore what the theatre demands – will die, but the theatre will live on… It is an extraordinarily primitive and eternal means of communication. And of course in this crazy world where everybody is so stressed, there is something amazingly neutral in a theatre… It is about telling the story, and that is what I love.”
This theatrical love affair he now delicately translates to the stage in The Echo of a Noise, baring his soul to the audience through his own narrative... No Tannie Evita, Bambi or PW. As a creative who has through the years told so many stories about South Africa through his characters, what makes The Echo of a Noise such a special theatre experience is that it shows you the man behind his unique style, because as Uys proclaims, “it is time”.
The personal journey so revealed does not only resonate with South Africans, who regard him as a national treasure, but have also been well received by international audiences. Uys tells that before this current Theatre on the Bay run, he took the production to Germany and realised why this very personal telling appeals across borders, “it is the story, it is universal and not time-based, it doesn’t have to be topical. And that is the universal heart-beat of theatre. It can go on with me forever.”
Theatre is also the right medium for this one-man conversation between Uys and his audience. “If I give them 60% they give me 40%, if I give them 40% they give me 60%”, he explains the crux of this partnership that he genuinely values. “People sit, they’ve chosen to sit there, they’ve paid for it. The most valuable thing is their time; it is not their money… It is just wonderful to look at an audience who gives me their time, and in my case [in return] I make them laugh at things they don’t want to think about.”
It also allows for a truly personal experience where Uys as entertainer can feel a connection with his audience on a different level that is more than just punchline generated laughs, which arguably television can also give them. “The camera takes everything from you and gives you nothing back – that is the terrifying thing about film – that’s why Marilyn Monroe killed herself, because there was no one there to hug her”, he insightfully comments. “That is what the life of theatre does to me. It is my lifeblood, and it is a great therapy, and it is great discipline. That is what it is, hard work and discipline.”
When you sit down at Theatre on the Bay, the experience of a great, comforting hug is perhaps the best way to describe The Echo of a Noise. That hug is an ode to storytelling in service of the theatre and in memory of the family and life that helped shape Uys as an all-round creative.
But why do you as audience member also feel the warmth and comfort of that hug? Relatability. Even though it is not your story, sitting in the audience you somehow naturally feel invested in his tale. Even if your previous Uys encounters have only been through his character Evita Bezuidenhout, you will still feel a strong connection with the story of young Pietertjie, as Uys shares his memories, because as he best phrases it, “some people grew up with [Tannie Evita] on their walls at home, the same way I grew up with Sophia Loren”.
What shines through like a theatre beacon in this show, is that – regardless of the sadness and loss he has experienced throughout his life – he lives and performs with a clear, jovial mind-set: “49% anger, 51% entertainment, not the other way around, because shouting doesn’t work.” Uys explains that the decision to always let positivity triumph is based on a “tremendous belief in goodness, optimism and hope. What is the point of falling prey to negativity? And the theatre by nature is optimistic”.
In elaborating on this character trait that he shares with theatre as an art form, he ponders why Les Miserables as a musical came into being. “What?”, Uys excitedly exclaims as he dramatizes the moment of its conceptualisation, “About French Revolution? Nonsense!” he declares. “And then it comes together… so everything about it says it’s not going to work, but then there is one thing that says it will work and that is the imagination! It’s going to work! And it does work! So theatre is every night when you come in and you think, ‘It’s going to work!’ I’m an addict, a terminal optimist. Not that I pretend to be Julie Andrews or Doris Day,” he with great respect to the dames qualifies. “Sometimes I think my definition of optimism means I expect the worst, hoping that the worst will not be as bad as I imagined. And so far, so good.”
Given that The Echo of a Noise is so balanced as a show, both filled with realism and depth, while presented with positivity and imagination, what then is a highlight moment for Uys himself when performing it?
“I think the most wonderful moment”, reflecting on his playwright ‘relationship’ with the literature police during the apartheids era, “is to say what the lady typist at the Censor Board typed… ‘Mnr Uys, u spel die word f*k met ‘n f, nie ‘n v nie’… and the whole audience just … *gyuh* … it puts it all into a nutshell. It puts censorship, it puts fear, it puts power, it puts swearing, it puts EVERYTHING together… you could practically see the frown in the letters. ‘If you want to do it you must do it proper, dis die taal!’”
Apart from that uber pedantic and highly entertaining linguist from his past, you will also see the very personal side of Uys, which includes his conversations with a cat on Table Mountain, seeing his sister follow in his parents footsteps to become a great pianist, as well as learn more about his fascination with and love for trains. That love ultimately led him to his home (and own theatre, Evita se Perron), in the quaint little town of Darling. Drawing on that part of his life, he shares that he is now working on a new show called, When In Doubt, Say Darling.
But that is not all audiences can look forward to from Uys in 2018. When people walk out of The Echo of a Noise, they want to hear more about the heart-warming and poignant stories as seen through the eyes of Uys, something you but get a glimpse of in the show itself. As he admits, if he shares more (or all) details onstage, then that glimpse would turn into a 14 hour long show. So to give people more than but an echo, he is currently working on turning it into a beautiful book, incorporating the script itself alongside more details and pictures.
It is exciting to listen to Uys talk about his past and future projects with so much passion. He is truly a walking example of why theatre will never fade or die, because entertainers like Uys will always have stories to tell. I for one can’t wait to put my pre-order in for the book that accompanies my favour Pieter-Dirk Uys show to date, The Echo of a Noise. You can experience this insightful one-man memoir at Theatre on the Bay until 15 July 2017, with tickets available at Computicket.