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Sunday, December 23, 2018


I enjoyed the book so much the first time, that I have since re-read it twice! (Review by Caroline Smart)

For well over 40 years, Pieter-Dirk Uys has carved his way into South African consciousness through his theatre work, writing and campaigning. The focus of his work has been South African politics as well as local and international social issues. All this he has carried out with a powerful mixture of satire, honesty and directness.

To date, he’s appeared in solo performances (ie alone on stage) over 7,000 times. He has written 33 plays, 46 revues, 12 novels and memoirs, and two cookery books. He has appeared in 18 documentaries, feature films and television specials.

He has also created the most famous white woman in South Africa, Evita Bezuidenhout. She is his sternest critic and, as he says, is – “a legend in her own lunchtime”, with her own Evita’s Free Speech every Sunday on You Tube; Monday on The Daily Maverick.

His acute observations of human nature are behind his power of storytelling. Reading The Echo of a Noise – A Memoir of Then and Now, gives you the feeling that he is sitting comfortably right next to you, taking you through the story of his life. I enjoyed the book so much the first time that I have since re-read it twice!

The book is dedicated to “that smile which helped change the world,” the caption that accompanies a photograph of him with Nelson Mandela with whom he built a lasting friendship.

(A young Pieter-Dirk Uys at the piano with his father)

Uys (now 72) grew up in Pinelands in the Cape. His parents were highly musical – his father, Hannes Uys, was a choral director, organist/pianist and was a natural jazz musician. A dour man, he did not make life easy for the young Pieter who wanted to go on the stage. A highly-skilled and superior pianist than her husband, Uys’ mother, Helga Bassel, was well-known in her own right. Her suicide devastated him and he always wished he had known more about her experiences in Nazi Germany during the war.
Tessa Uys, Pieter-Dirk’s sister, inherited her parents’ musical genes and followed a successful career as a celebrated international solo pianist before she returned to South Africa where she now lives in Cape Town.
 (Helga Bassel, Pieter-Dirk Uys’ mother)

Uys constantly acknowledges the integral part played by his home and foundation with his family. Two other major influences were his grandmothers but special support came from Tan’ Sannie, their housekeeper, who later became his father's carer.

He was an angelic-looking boy soprano and sang in choirs and at weddings and on the radio. His first experience of theatre was at high school in 1962 when his class was taken to Cape Town see a production of King Lear – his first experience to Shakespeare and a production in English. He was over-awed by the stage lights and described the actors as “gods and goddesses in wonderful clothes”.

He decided, against his father’s wishes to take a drama degree and enrolled at UCT. He says everything he learnt about theatre was through working in the Hofmeyr Theatre in the evenings as an usher, watching performances every night.

As his life progressed, he started spreading his wings as a writer and actor. He was a risk taker – flouting the Publications Control Board and eventually persuaded his father to join the censor board which was mainly made up of members of the Broederbond. Hannes gave Pieter-Dirk a perfect piece of advice – “Don’t allow them to frighten you, Pietie. Make fun of them. Maak hulle belaglik (ridiculous).”

And so he did exactly that – going forth with a determined boldness despite the delicate situation in which he was surrounded.

As well as Nelson Mandela, major influences in his life were film stars Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren, the latter with whom he fell in love as a youngster and they have kept in touch across the world all these years.

Uys has achieved multiple awards and accolades but he doesn’t parade himself in public. There is a private side one doesn’t see, so this book is a rare glimpse into his life - family relationships, struggles, sorrows, disappointments and successes but overall it charts his determination to let the public know about things that aren’t right.

Thankfully, this book avoids being a standard chronological style of biography as his thoughts wander from the past to the present and back again. It includes many delightful and memorable quotes. When asked what he does, he calls on a recurring theme throughout the book: “I build sandcastles when the tide is out”. Another comment is “Live theatre is one of the few inspiring things not yet in a tin or on a disc or in the Cloud.

Memorable sections are when he proudly takes part in the first democratic election and was able to “queue up with anybody”. The pages he devotes to the death of his mother and, later, his father are moving and beautifully handled.

While researching the memoir and “exposing the small signposts” of his childhood, he reveals that he has “come to know the most difficult character among the eighty or so I have performed on stage in my chorus line of creatures, clowns and criminals. Me.”

He says he is “still an usher but also a stage manager, theatre owner, dramatist, satirist, `drag queen’ (for those who don’t realise that the proper word is `actor’), publicist, optimist and eighty people on stage.”

All I can say is - thank heavens, Pieter-Dirk Uys is still going strong!

The Echo of a Noise – A Memoir of Then and Now is published by Tafelberg. Retail price R280. EAN: 9780624086918 – Caroline Smart