Theatre Interview: Pieter-Dirk Uys – New News, New Roles, Or All Dressed Up And Something To Say

August 28, 2023




Pieter-Dirk Uys: Sell-By Date / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


Evita Bezuidenhout is back on stage in this show, along with many of your other older characters. For some audience members, that will mean nostalgia. But there are many other who will have never seen her live. Do you think Evita will play the same role for both groups or are completely different reactions likely?

She has grandchildren in school and at Wits, so she’s used to dealing with youngsters! But no, I don’t reflect on an audience’s expectations – I can’t do that. And the characters are dealing with a lot of subject matter that affects people today. Evita is very much reflecting on the BRICS summit. She’s upset, as she was told she would be put in charge of the Russian delegation. Nowell Fine has been to hospital for a breast reduction, as she was knocking herself out while toyi-toyiing. And I pay tribute to many of the women who have inspired me – and some of the men, with PW Botha, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela all making an appearance. The reality of having had a knee replacement also means adapting what I do. I don’t write around the knee, but I do compensate for how it’s changed my life, like doing the exercises my physio gave me during the show!


Part of the concept of Sell-By Date is talking about or reacting to the news of the day – every day – which requires a constantly changing script. What does that involve on any given show day. How much is preparation and how much improvisation?

I look at the political cartoons – they help. But you reach a point where, instinctively, you know what a few well-chosen words will do to wake people up. And you can’t do old news. People don’t care about that. In some ways, for the first time, I feel like this is not a performance for people, but more about talking to them. There’s lots of engagement. For all of us, getting used to changing democratic structures is like by knee rehab. You have to take things slowly and carefully. If I try something and it doesn’t work twice, I cut it. I don’t want to believe that people aren’t capable of getting what I’m talking about. Do that and you end up catering to the lowest common denominator. And now we always need to not the differences between satire and racism – the definitions for both have changed in the mainstream. Do I have to cancel my own culture? Do I need to be woke?


Sell-By Date: it’s a title that unavoidably prompts reflection. You’ve needed a knee op; South African democracy is struggling and so on. That can be tricky to market – it’s not escapism and requires audience commitment. Does that affect the effort you need to put into performances, as you perhaps need to combine being a bellwether, a motivational speaker and an actor?

Some of the historical characters were out of date 30 years ago. People under 30 don’t know who I’m talking about, and I don’t want to be some Stone Age satirist. I put a 90-minute limit on performances, as that means there needs to be editing, with some characters taken out. It’s not self-censorship – now that’s a scary thing! – but a white satirist calling out black political parties or whatever is now racism. Thankfully, Evita can do that as she’s a member of the ANC who right now is ‘cooking for reconciliation’. During apartheid, democracy was the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, thanks to Eskom, there’s no light. I’m very aware, for instance, of schoolchildren having conversations about where they want to emigrate to. And there’s also the sell-by date experience by people with 60 years of experience who are suddenly no longer wanted in the workplace. It makes no sense. I try to avoid being anything but an actor, although I definitely want to make people less afraid of fear.


Do you ever get gatvol at the pace at which some people learn?

I don’t think of it. I do get gatvol at the pace at which I learn. But education is always important. I weave talk about next year’s election into the show: people must know what’s going on and try to change what they can. It does matter. The newspapers don’t carry news anymore. There are so few sources that are trustworthy. Make sure you find them.


You’ve released another book of plays: The Mandela Rainbow Honeymoon. In the period it covers – 1992 to 1997 – you averaged around a new show a year. Did you feel that there was an imperative to provide a useful filter while he was in power? To support his themes for your audience?

The plays very much reflected what happened during that time – including the sadness that took hold as we lost what he’d conjured up. The next book will be challenging. It covers the Mbeki years and all his denialism around Aids, which led to so many people dying. And the fourth one will come out on my 80th birthday, taking us from Zuma’s shower to Ramaphosa’s sofa. Times have changed. Politicians at least used to have a sense of humour that allowed you to get them to be authentic in interviews. That’s no longer there…


Was there an opportunity you’re sad you’re missed while Madiba was president?

I do write a chapter from my perspective, talking about Evita’s interviews with him. They were extraordinary. There are so many interactions I’d like to tell people about, but it could just come across as namedropping.


Allowing performers, especially youngsters, free access to this material provides such a valuable history teaching tool. Is that something you want to allow to spread organically or are there plans to try to connect specific readers with the book?

The reactions, particularly from schoolkids who start asking questions about why certain people are in the plays, has been wonderful. I have alerted all the schools I went to with my Aids programme, and they now have the book in their libraries. And there is incredible feedback from people who grew up outside South Africa. It all makes this maybe the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done.


Confronting fears is necessary, but never comfortable…

We need to clothe fears as situations, or funny stories. Sometimes the ingredients, on their own, are not great. But I’m no less passionate about creating the final product. It’s life. It’s breath. It’s oxygen.


Download the text for The Mandela Rainbow Honeymoon here – for free.