By BRUCE DENNILL
The Echo Of A Noise is a stage memoir, so you’re presenting yourself. But is it you as a character; not the you people might meet in a coffee shop or see in the foyer after the show?
I had to create a character who was also called Pieter-Dirk Uys. In my early shows, I very rarely had a personal opinion. If I had something to say, I had to give the character the courage to say it.
In that headspace, is it necessary to prepare, before a performance, as you would if you were playing a more conventional character?
Yes, absolutely. It’s very structured. I painted myself into a corner in terms of what I allow myself to say and if I divert from that, we’ll probably never get to the end of the show! The other night, there was loadshedding in the middle of the show, and I find that when that sort of thing happens, I have to remind myself where I am in the story so that I’m able to keep the thread going when the power comes back.
So yes, I have to prepare every time – it’s not just going on. I’m communicating something structured, so there’s a huge amount of editing. This show started in 2015, but what I’m doing with it now has little in common with that first version – that was pure adrenaline. Now, it’s far richer than it was four or five years ago. The audience has changed completely, thanks to Covid. The country we’re in now is so different – we couldn’t have dreamed of this.
Many people have seen you in several shows – and perhaps in more than one version of The Echo Of A Noise. Do you find that there are expectations of what and who you are that can become burdensome?
If I think about those sort of expectations, I can’t deliver. That nudge-nudge kind of “Hey, maybe he’ll do that thing” chatter derails things.
There is some politics in this show, but it’s not a central theme. How does that change the tone relative to some of your more satirical work?
There are political colours there, but it’s more about our reactions in this case. The success of the piece is that it’s so much about family. Even people with no shared background can relate incredibly strongly. This one is more personal and honest – with all the odd details. I mean, I only found out my mother was Jewish after she died! Imagine that!
Tell me about your friendship with Sofia Loren – an extraordinary connection that could not have happened in a different time. Why was she, specifically, initially such a standout for you?
I have no idea – it could have been Debbie Reynolds, I guess, but it wasn’t. The most specific moment was when my mother died. The only person I could talk to was gone. So I found Sofia’s address in Rome and I knew what her apartment looked like – I had seen her leaning out of her window in something on TV. When I went to Europe for the first time, I left a letter for her there and we became pen friends. Her input after my mom’s suicide changed my life.
She’s given me such good advice. I was going to go into politics at one point, to stand against Pik Botha in Westdene. That would have put a bunch of people I worked with in a difficult position, though. When I talked to her about it, she said, “Go back to the theatre, where you are strong. You will be unique there. You will never be unique in politics.”
Are you still in touch?
Yes – once a week, at least. Nowadays, we mostly send each other cat and dog memes on WhatsApp!
Have you ever been tempted to satirise her in-laws [Loren’s younger sister married Benito Mussolini’s youngest son]?
No, never. I have already taken enough for her for Evita Bezuidenhout. I loved Sofia’s make-up, and she caught me looking closely at it once, so she showed me how to do it, and I use those lessons to this day.
With your home and theatre at Evita se Perron in Darling and all of its many facets, plus your Aids activism, plus the thousand other things you’re involved in, where does theatre work – outside of Darling – now sit in your schedule?
My usual turnover involved planning two years ahead – and then Covid. Over the course of a single weekend, I had to cancel 230 performances and close the Perron. I even had to get a permit so I could feed the cats around the building, because we weren’t allowed to go outside at the time.
Spending all that time at home, I found that I had 40 years’ worth of costumes in my cupboards and, six weeks into Covid, I had no way of knowing if or how I was going to be able to use them again. I found an old grey wig, which got me thinking about Evita. By the end of the pandemic, she wouldn’t have been able to go the hairdresser for two years! That was the first optimistic, creative thought I had in that time.
That helped me get going. I have all my plays on my website, though I never included my reviews, as I thought those were all a sort of shorthand for the time in which they were written. But while typing up the plays, I realised I had said some things when I wrote and performed them that could make people – even me – feel uncomfortable now. I realised I had to write up a backstory for each play to help people understand the context they were created in. Then I realised I needed to write up a backstory for apartheid, as many people who didn’t live through it can’t understand what it was like.
I started doing that, and ended up with 400 pages, which my partner Brent and I published on our imprint Missing Ink. The book is available on my website for free and I’ve had wonderful reactions from all over the world. Kids are doing sketches out of it, asking questions – “Who’s Winnie Mandela?” – and finding out about history as they go.
But I work on theatre every day. There are challenges to meet. Youngsters, for instance, only tend to focus on what is happening now.
I’m different, too. My tolerance of madness has changed. The disease to please is cured. I don’t have to explain or apologise for anything – and that’s liberated me completely.