Uys, unpowdered

Echo

A boy and his kitty: Pieter-Dirk Uys as a child. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.

THE CHALLENGE OF conjuring freshness on stage is one not easily met. The challenge of conjuring freshness on stage, and making them laugh, and making them cry, and making them stand in awestruck ovation at the end, particularly after a lifetime of being on stage, is even tougher. Now at 71, self-styled veteran South African jester Pieter Dirk Uys does it again. His Echo of a Noise is a beautifully honed, all holds barred autobiography that ramps up his stage persona considerably: nary a heel or a wig in sight.

This is Uys stripped bare, using only his words and his memories, his inimitable face and his sheer honesty to convey portraits of his loved ones: his mother, Helga; his father, Hannes and his domestic maid, Sannie. And if you’ve read Uys’s autobiography Erections and Elections, you might have an inkling as to how some of the tale unfolds, but still, the work is fresh and pure. It’s funny and frank, candid and tragic, and conveyed with an infinitesimal sense of realness that is Uys.

It’s about an adoration of Sophia Loren and of Amadeus Mozart. It’s a confrontation with the idea of heaven and that of hell. And a speculation as to where cats like Boeboe end up. It’s a piano’s journey from Germany to Africa and back again, and a confession about his mother’s identity, and it contains and is defined by earth-shattering realisations about history and horror.

One moment in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) makes the film, a surreal tale of death and whimsy, with the fabulous Ruth Gordon in a central role, into a Holocaust film. It’s unspoken. It’s brief. But it is so devastatingly poignant that it becomes the nub on which the whole tale rests. Something similar happens in Uys’s confrontation with his mother’s identity. It happens over a cup of tea, with a woman from his mother’s childhood, and involves a tattoo of many numbers.

But the tale does not hold tight onto terrible moments and like a spot of quicksilver, it rambles away in a diversity of directions and with nuance and tears, fondness and laughter, Uys paints his mother: a gifted pianist with secrets and great sadness but also an ability to laugh with abandon. He paints his father with a devastating sense of balance and an unequivocal focus on the vagaries of old age and the tightness of discipline and church. Above all, he paints his family’s domestic maid with fondness and hilarity, revealing her as a prism to all the idiosyncrasy that constitutes what being South African in a world torn by values and rules, meant.

Echo of a Noise contains the sadness of sudden loss and the sadness of anticipated loss that constitutes some of the fabric of being alive in this world, replete as it is with broken dreams and shams. But it doesn’t allow itself to slip into maudlin, and you’re left utterly in awe for the man who makes it happen. It’s like spending a privileged 90 minutes having an intimate cup of tea with a giant: one you won’t forget in a hurry. It will touch you deeply – and it’s worth travelling to Cape Town for, in July, if you can’t make it tomorrow in Johannesburg.

  • Echo of a Noise is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, until April 9, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from July 4-15. Call 021-438-3301 or visit pietertoerien.co.za. See a political commentary on this show here.
  • In response to popular demand, the show will be staged for another brief season at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, June 14-18.
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2 thoughts on “Uys, unpowdered

  1. Pingback: Deafened by the dark laughter of our times | GEOFF SIFRIN

  2. Pingback: Evita and the astonishing freedom of irrelevance | My View

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