Sashay with darling down memory lane

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GIVING it eyebrows: Pieter-Dirk Uys transforms into Evita on stage before your very eyes. Photograph courtesy Netwerk 24.

WHEN OLD AGE and its vagaries come under the inestimable loupe of Pieter-Dirk Uys, you may believe you’re in for a laugh-a-second experience with a sharp and bitter edge, and you will not be wrong, but the tears fall amid the laughter, which sometimes sours on your face. When in doubt say ‘Darling’ is a foray into what it means to look back on a career and forward into the possibilities of dotage. It’s self-deprecating as is Uys’s wont, but replete with the one-liners that have defined him for decades, it’s a little tired.

Uys single-handedly defined the notion of holding a mirror up to the shenanigans of the state from the late 1970s, when the vicious madness of apartheid values were at their most self-absorbed and arguably most dangerous peak. He was the one who had the temerity to imitate PW Botha’s ugly grimace from beneath his hat in a way that brought that devil onto the stage, and made you laugh with hilarity because it felt so real, but you knew it wasn’t.

In this new show, Uys offers a taxonomy of South African leaders and insight into the complexity of pulling the mickey out of each of them. He even dusts off his Piet Koornhof mask, the one with the nose and the ears that unmistakably reflects the face of a man who held many different portfolios in the South African apartheid Cabinet, with his characteristically skewed morals and insinuatingly gentle voice. And mostly he looks at this box of monsters with a softened eye. With Thabo Mbeki and his Aids denialism as the obvious exception, of course.

Bringing a tear to your eye as he thinks of Winnie Mandela, Uys scans the newspaper and finds nothing of real moment. He brings a litany of his characters on stage – including his alter-ego, South Africa’s most famous woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, but the entourage is peppered with vignettes of another character, an old man, who is in the process of relocating to a retirement establishment. Accompanied by his dog Smelly, he’s in the process of packing his life into boxes. And what happens with this? The elderly hands need to be pried from objects that hold rusty memories but no real value. And it’s hard to watch.

Also, part of this work is the story behind Uys’s home in Darling, a town in the Western Cape. There are enough Darling metaphors and scenarios to put lipstick on your smiling mouth. There are tales of the children and the poverty of the place — stories of glee and pride. You laugh gently with this figure, who slips chameleonically through eras and identities, but you also sober up and acknowledge that the turning over of decades has rendered Uys an important elder of the theatre community. A unique and irreplaceable one. And this reason, as well as all the others makes it unequivocally a work to cherish.

  • When in doubt, say ‘Darling’ is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys until April 22 at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • Read a critical analysis of how this work is seen to touch a nerve in contemporary politics, by Geoff Sifrin.

Hedwig takes it all the way

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OPEN wide: Paul du Toit is Hedwig. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

YOU KNOW THAT headache you get when you are grinding your teeth really energetically to ensure that the outer chaos doesn’t make your whole head implode? That is the kind of feeling you may emerge with when you exit Hedwig and the angry inch. It’s a mash up of 1970s David Bowie dress-up values with the fierce weirdness of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a splash of the aesthetic of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a generous heaped tablespoon of the kind of stuff that Pieter-Dirk Uys used to fuel Evita Bezuidenhout’s sinister Nazi sister, Bambi Kellerman. Does this make it a transgender anthem? In spite of rave reviews the world over, this is not a certainty.

Telling the story of an East European cabaret singer with a horrid past and a botched sex change operation, it’s a tale of love and disappointment, abuse and self-deprecation, filled to the brim with sexual innuendo. Its hammer comes down not only on the biases tilted at the gender-uncertain,  but on everything and everyone else as well. The Holocaust, epileptics and deaf children are part of the butts in the jokes repertoire and they reach so far down in the bin of distaste that there’s almost a turnabout in your knee-jerk reaction to be offended. Do you laugh, though? Or do you feel the smile freezing horribly on your face?

You don’t get the space to think about that, because on top of all this wretched and ragged humour, are vicious lashings of strobes, in a theatre where the sound is about seventeen times bigger than the space itself. The casualty, as always, becomes the intelligibility of the lyrics, which is a pity – those that you do hear are tight and bitter, strong and wicked.

And while Genna Galloway and Paul du Toit shine unequivocally in their complex genderised roles which dodge stereotypes and stir up discomfort, with humiliation and cruelty spread all around with abandon, there’s just so much of a sensory assault in this work that something of the wit and the wisdom, the schlock and the social critique that you know it embodies feels lost.

It’s staged in a fantastic set that brings all the mess and unglamour, the grubby clutter of a caravan and a drag artist’s sense of self to the fore, where barely an inch of space is left bare. The band performs from above the set and the work is outrageously cluttered with shocking pink spangly stuff, vinyl records and washing pegged on lines.

The songs in this work are potent with potential. They present quirky narratives that resonate with tales from Ovid; and there’s a moment of hand-drawn animation which will make you stop in your tracks to adore it.

A work which leaves you rushing home in a quest for painkillers, but also one that opens your head and eyes to war narratives which have not yet been explored on a popular platform, Hedwig and the angry inch is a strong show with a weak sense of the power of gimmicks. It leaves you pondering what it would feel like if du Toit and Galloway were allowed to wow their audience without the dazzle and flash of the technology.

  • Hedwig and the angry inch is written by John Cameron Mitchell and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), Wessel Odendaal (musical direction) and Niall Griffin (production design), is performed by Paul du Toit and Genna Galloway until April 1 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511-1818.

More hilarious horror from the news

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A man for all caricatures: Daniel Mpilo Richards. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

YET ANOTHER BRISTLING piece of repartee, rich and seething with the material spewed out by our world, Mike van Graan’s State Fracture is a fitting sequel to his Pay Back the Curry, which graced this theatre at the end of last year. Boasting the same cast and team, the work is as slick and quick and biting as ever: and while you’re laughing, with the knife-edge flick of a nuance, the work turns sinister, freezing that grin on your face. It’s the genius of director Rob van Vuuren and van Graan with Daniel Mpilo Richards at the proverbial coal face that makes this collaborative energy so fresh, tight and cohesive.

Like Pay Back the Curry, this revue of different characters, from Dean the front man at the Saxonwold Shebeen; to a local battery chicken who resents the American chicks with their fat brine-infused thighs; to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man so full of Jesus and the SABC he knows not one from the other, offers a peek at the madness, the alternative facts and the blatant stupidity within. The lyrics of songs by Abba, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley are gutted and reinstated in van Graan’s characteristically sophisticated and angry manner to hilarious effect which will keep you restraining those guffaws because you need to hear all the words and consider how they resonate with the originals. Like Pay Back the Curry, and novels such as Paige Nick’s recent Unpresidented, the work will date rapidly, but it is articulating stories and scenarios which are relevant, and in doing so, it serves an important function in society.

As you sit there, in the audience, however, something else might flicker through your sensibilities. It has to do with works such as the 1972 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, in which Joel Gray, the inimitable MC represents the messy and rotten state of the world at the time, situated as it is in the 1930s – between the wars – with humour and horror spiced by song so richly cooked together it makes your head spin. What van Graan is doing in work of this nature is holding a mirror up to society – as do practitioners such as political jester Pieter-Dirk Uys and political cartoonist Zapiro. While State Fracture is a couple of spoofs too many (or too similar), which finds your focus dwindling toward the end, it’s a well-crafted work that hits the mark. Resoundingly.

  • State Fracture is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob Van Vuuren. It features creative input by Stephanie Papini (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until July 29. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883-8606.

Evita and the astonishing freedom of irrelevance

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A STEPLADDER REACHES up to the ceiling of the stage. The curtains are half closed. There’s a “horrible little doll” representing Economic Freedom Front leader, Julius Malema, and Evita Bezuidenhout, togged in flimsy leopard print and doek with a bag full of goodies arrives for an Imbizo, cellphone at hand, a bag full of goodies under her arm and a litany of rich and fantastic tales to regale us with, through the trajectory of her own history and the murk of lies and fake facts which we’re fed all the time.

But who are “we” in the saga? The Montecasino audience is traditionally largely white. The diatribe constructed, certainly in the first half of this production is extremely white-focused, and you emerge at interval pondering the relevance of Evita, who has been up until now, not only the most famous woman in South Africa, but largely a legend in her own time – ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu – in the arena of political satire.

Interspersed with everything, from a splaying out of fake news into fake history, to jabs at everything from measles vaccinations to Donald Trump’s blatant sexism, the work is beautifully written, top of the moment in political acuity and newsworthiness and well-structured, but it does feel monumentally long – for you in the audience, and for the 71-year-old performer on stage.

But then, as the second half opens, replete with enlarged reproductions of the kind of prints and paintings that adorned classrooms under apartheid, a piano and some other choice props, the piece’s pace heats up and the racial focus of the work comes into astonishing relief. Evita, arguably the world’s queen of fake news, examines the kak in historical cacti, and the repartee whirrs and flies with a mixture of heady political and sexual references which take Mrs Bezuidenhout to a new level of wit.

A character constructed by Pieter-Dirk Uys, who we’ve seen on these stages with a completely different frame of references but a few weeks ago, Evita is always a draw-card for local audiences. All through apartheid, she had the temerity to hold up the crooked and ugly mirror to South Africans. Now, at 71, she’s both suave and naive, politically astute and believable. She’s the epitome of Afrikaans genteel manners all wrapped up in a range of other subtleties and she’s the exactly appropriate vehicle for some of the finest of insults towards South African leadership and history, and like any good jester, carries with her a handbag of bold and brave tricks and jibes, and neither Jacob Zuma nor Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela nor Kgalema Mothlanthe escape unscathed.

Enfolding everything in the polite terms of an Afrikaans tannie who helps out in the kitchen of Tuynhuys, the Presidential Residence in Cape Town, on a Tuesday, Evita who is now a junior member of the ANC – she was during the 1980s, apartheid’s ambassador to the fictional South African homeland, Bapetikosweti – is now a gogo in her own right, and continues playing court jester with as much pizzazz and elegance as she’s done for over twenty years. But today, her bite is even sharper, and her focus more specifically honed. In considering her own racism, she will force you to ponder yours. In considering how she is a non-black South African, she will make you think a little deeper about what it takes to exist with authenticity in this topsy turvy world of ours. And how the white Afrikaner’s relevance has evaporated.

You will laugh, but often it is a laughter spiced with savvy or even sadness, as you acknowledge the bitter truths and historical projections that are within Evita’s ambit, and that reflect on the brokenness of the context in which all South Africans live and make sense of everything.

Death of a golden boy

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WASHING dishes: Lisa (Rolanda Marais), Dirk (Albert Pretorius), Hein (Ludwig Binge), Anya (Ilana Cillier) and Johnny (Roelof Storm) at play.

Sometimes you just know that a film will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit or its importance as a piece of research. Johnny is nie dood nie is a film of this nature. Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film.

On one level it’s a loosely historical account of the last 15 years of the life of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel – born Ralph Rabie in 1960 – bringing in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the era, not to mention the looming terror of mandatory army service for young white males, the PTSD and the sense of utter impotence in the eye of apartheid’s evils. It’s a tale of love and betrayal, of defiance and Alice in Wonderland, and there are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a socio-political nexus laced with ideals and fury.

On another level, it is an essay on the loss of a dear friend. Lise (Rolanda Marais), Anya (Ilana Cillier), Hein (Ludwig Binge) and Dirk (Albert Pretorius) get together to commiserate about the suicide of the one who was central to all of their lives. It’s 2002 and they’re young adults with responsibilities. The flashbacks to the 1980s and their late teens offer clear and troubled insight into the messed up state of South African society at the time, as they present the nub of the Voëlvry movement, a development of politically astute Afrikaans cabaret which set Afrikaans university students afire with a sense of possibility.

When first we meet the eponymous Johnny (Roelof Storm), he’s freshly fired from his job as a journalist, and cocks a snook at the country’s expectations of him with glee. With his platinum blond hairdo and his nimble wit and singing talent, Johnny is like a god. But he’s like a fallen god. He has secrets that will overpower you in their sense of choice, in the Catch-22 that embraced the lives of so many young men of that wretched, double-crossed era.

While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched and hard-hitting. With everything, from a delicious cameo of the late Barend de Wet, with hookah and existential solutions at hand, to a televised snippet which reflects Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys) chatting to Kerkorrel about life, the universe and music, as well as illustrations by John Tenniel on the walls, and Jan F E Celliers’s poem Dis Al on the window of a student dorm, the work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Of the five central characters, it is Albert Pretorius’s nuanced sense of history and sadness that grips the film in an embrace which is haunting, delicate and simply beautiful. You understand implicitly that his Dirk, ultimately is a reflection of Dirk Uys who became the manager of Kerkorrel’s band, Gereformeerde Blues Band.

You have to sit to the very last moment of the film – even after the credits have scrolled up – for the music, however. The work is more focused on the horror and wildness of the times than the poetry of Kerkorrel and his contemporaries, including James Philips (who invented the alter ego Bernoldus Niemand), Koos Kombuis and others, but you must focus carefully. Snatches of Kerkorrel’s songs tie the work together like sinews and connective tissue. There’s a game the friends play in remembering lyrics, and a completely fabulous reconstruction of the iconic and utterly bizarre image that defines his record Eet Kreef  but you can rest assured, his magnificent ballads Hillbrow and In die Tronk are not forgotten.

  • Johnny is nie dood nie (2017) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and stars Ludwig Binge, Ilana Cillier, Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Roelof Storm, based on the eponymous stage play by Malan Steyn. It is 106 minutes in length and is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor outlets nationwide on Friday May 5. Visit cinemanouveau.co.za and https://www.facebook.com/Johnnyisniedoodnie/?hc_ref=SEARCH for more details.

Uys, unpowdered

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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.

The man who could fly

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MADNESS of reason: Godfrey Johnson is Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.

But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries  and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.

And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.

Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.

Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.

The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.

  • Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za