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The triumph of high achievement

Janet van Eeden

Between the Devil and the Deep, A Memoir of Acting and Reacting
Pieter-Dirk Uys
Publisher: ZEBRA PRESS
ISBN: 1770071008
Published: 2005

I started reading Between the Devil and the Deep, A Memoir of Acting and Reacting by Pieter-Dirk Uys just as rehearsals started for my new play going to the Grahamstown Festival. I couldn’t concentrate very well on reading the memoir. Working on a play, especially if one has written it too, becomes so all-consuming that anything outside of its narrow frame seems irrelevant. This tunnel vision persists for the duration of the play. So I put aside Between the Devil and the Deep for a while and returned to it only once the play had finished its run. After a fairly bruising time at the festival, reading the memoir now seemed much more relevant to me. Not that it wasn’t before. I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it.

Pieter-Dirk Uys’s memoir is a reflection on almost all of his plays and performances. And while that might have seemed a little self-indulgent before my recent foray into the performance arena again, it now seems perfectly apt for the performer to put his or her point across about the harrowing experience of baring one’s words, one’s body and one’s soul before a group of people who may or may not be sympathetic. After all, as Theodore Roosevelt said, 

The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends him(her)self in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. 

It is good to read this iconic writer/performer’s point of view. After all, everyone else always has his or her two cents’ worth at the expense of the artist. It is fitting that the artist is given a voice too. Writer/producer/director Richard E Grant has also taken this route, writing about his first experiences in films in With Nails, and following it up recently in The Wah Wah Diaries. It becomes a rare treat to hear the inside story from the horse’s mouth, as it were; it’s a bit like gossiping about the intimate details of rehearsals and performances with the artists over a cup of good coffee.

Uys is someone who has forged his own individualistic path in the tenuous world of theatre in this country. He is also that rare beast whose work has been widely accepted as definitive of South Africa’s past lunacy in many places in the rest of the world. He became this iconic figure by following his own path in spite of much criticism along the way. If he had listened to his father, he would not have entered the theatre. If he had listened to his lecturers, critics and many others around him, he would have changed his signature style. He has become who he is by listening only to his own individual promptings. And like him or loathe him, there is no one else quite like him anywhere else in the world.

In his early years growing up, Uys found himself surrounded by the stalwarts of apartheid’s formation. “Pictures of the Battle of Blood River would hang in our classrooms like the Virgin Mary in Rome and the Queen in Windsor.” DF Malan was his father’s first cousin. But two school teachers inspired him: Fanie du Toit with his Sosiale Studies, and Aloise Nel with Engels. “Du Toit dressed up the historical propaganda as entertainment and made the lies exciting and as fictional as a John Wayne movie.” His beloved Miss Nel taught him that “You can do anything you believe in.”
So he went to University to study English and History. In his second year at UCT he decided to do Drama as part of his BA course, so he could be more like a friend whom he’d just made, Phyllis Punt. She wore a beret and smoked cigarettes in an infinitely long Garbo-esque holder and he was smitten. The powers that be at UCT told him, “You have no talent as an actor. You speak badly. You’re too Afrikaans. You should go to Stellenbosch.”

As every artist will tell you, it is the enemies you make along your creative path to whom you should be the most grateful, for it is they who force you to prove them wrong. Uys did just that. Not directly at first. He became a stage manager for a while, throwing himself into that wonderful job usually occupied by those who adore the theatre but don’t quite have the talent or belief in themselves to take up position centre stage. And he remains eternally grateful to the discipline he learnt during that time:

I was an Afrikaans Calvinist boy used to obeying orders. I studied stage management, which meant buying cigarettes for actors, cleaning floors, ironing costumes, setting up props, following the text to prompt lines during performance, doing all the dirty work and taking all the blame. Today the job description hasn’t changed. This daily lucky packet of experiences was the best training I have ever had for the job I do now. I’ve been doing it for forty years and it’s probably the same as it was then.

Fetch. Carry. Set up, structure, budget. Lock up when everyone is gone. Go home and be fresh for tomorrow.

Uys’s description of his time at the Drama School will resonate with all who have stood on the stage at the Little Theatre and felt the thrill of adrenalin as the audience prepares to listen to one’s words. He met people who taught him important rules about life in the theatre: “It’s all work. One hundred percent work. Every minute you work. If you are late, you are rubbish. You insult your colleagues. You’re an amateur. Go home and kill yourself.” These were not the words of the revered lecturers. They were the words of Helen Rooza, the wardrobe mistress, who was officially classified as coloured. She taught Uys that the prejudice he had grown up with in his insular home was completely outlandish. She also taught him about speaking Afrikaans in a way that made it completely her own.

Uys also mentions the lecturers who were the legends of UCT Drama School at that time: Mavis Taylor, Robert Mohr, Rosalie van der Gucht and others. And eventually he did perform on stage. Minor roles at first – as Corvino in Volpone - but he was noticed. His upbringing in a house of concert musicians prepared him for the rigours of appearing before an audience night after night. And he thrived. He was nominated for his “acclaimed” performance in Volpone. When one of the judges asked him to tea just before the final decisions were made about the winners, he ran away from her when she met him in a transparent Indian silk cloth. Strangely enough he didn’t win.

The first time he played a woman was also at UCT. He was cast as a woman in a kabuki drama directed by Robert Mohr. This was closely followed by his discovery of make-up when Mavis Taylor asked him to help her with the make-up class for first-year students.

“This was the next window for me. The magic of eyeliner and lashes, rouge and lipstick. Laurence Olivier had just appeared in the film Khartoum as the darkly hued Mahdi. I found I could look just like him by using the right Leichners on my own face. With a white sheet knotted around the head and eyes darkly kohled, I was Olivier’s Mahdi!”

Uys was soon appearing as Marlene Dietrich in a crowd scene in one of Mavis Taylor’s production and loving every moment of it.       

His obsession with Sophia Loren is also well documented in this memoir. In the eighties when I was living in Jo’burg and working for PACT, I went with a group of friends to pick up a girl who was house-sitting Uys’s cottage in Melville. We all trouped in for a quick squiz around the lounge. The signed photos and letters from Sophia Loren were very much in prime position on the walls. We were all deeply impressed. And we left for our night of youthful carousing feeling like we’d been in the presence of great artists. Even if it had been only by proxy. Uys tells of his discovery of Sophia in his own inimitable way:

I used to sing in my father’s choir in the Dutch Reformed Church in Rondebosch. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and his wife Betsie would sit in the pews and listen intently. They were fans. I have letters to prove it. Then I discovered Sophia Loren in the pages of Stage and Cinema, and she was prettier!   

The next most formative time in Uys’s career was soon after he left the all-consuming world of university and the Little Theatre. The Space theatre had been opened in Long Street by the innovative team of Brian Astbury, Athol Fugard and Yvonne Bryceland. Uys quotes Brian Astbury’s book on the genesis of The Space written in 1979: “The idea had been planted by Orestes. If only we had a space to work in … It was Athol who articulated it: the right to fail.”

The founding principle of The Space was that anyone who wanted to be a member of the audience could come. And anyone could come and act. This was quite a revolutionary concept in apartheid South Africa. But the history of The Space is explored by Uys as he joins the remarkable people who made this place become a landmark event in theatrical history rather than a vaguely remembered place. Nudity was explored. Cross-racial issues were dramatised and (shock and horror) black people performed on stage in front of white people. It is hard for those who did not live through the full horrors of apartheid to know just how revolutionary all these breakthroughs were.

Uys puts it succinctly: “The Space/Die Ruimte became the conscience of a young generation.” I remember it well at a slightly later time in the eighties when The Troupe theatre company was at its peak. Richard E Grant, Ian Roberts, Henry Goodman and Fiona Ramsey (and a few others) presented mind-boggling theatre with immense regularity. And as a student/waitress (no waitrons in those days) I would live exciting realities vicariously through their creations week after week.

Uys’s productions of his own writing began there in earnest. He’d just finished a stint as “Peter Ace” at the London Film School and decided to come home when someone sent him “a cassette of Mimi Coertse singing ‘Ou Boereplaas’ as a joke”. He explains, “I cried all day and got on the next ship to Cape Town …” He walked straight into a play at The Space. Uys quotes Brian Astbury again:

He walked into The Space healthy and bronzed to Robin (Malan), myself and the rest of the cast waiting, script in hand. He thought we were joking. Five days later he opened - haggard and pale. It was not the first time that he raced to the rescue.

Part of the deal of acting at such short notice was that The Space would produce Uys’s play Faces in the Wall. It was a play regarded as flawed by some, but one critic compared Uys’s writing to John Osborne of Look Back in Anger fame, and the theatre was packed for weeks. Uys followed this by directing many other plays with the cream of South African theatre involved in and around productions: Yvonne Bryceland, Percy Sieff, Maralin van Reenen, Lynne Maree, Bill Flynn, Paul Slabolepsy, Dawie Malan, Peter Piccolo and others. It was at The Space during this time, too, that Winston Ntshona and John Kani performed Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead and later The Island.   

One of the most remarkable features of The Space was that “… we worked liked slaves and felt like Caesars, all paid the same R22,50 a week, from the assistant stage manager to Yvonne Bryceland, who sometimes worked as assistant stage manager when not playing the lead.” Such democracy in the acting world was a first in this country, and showed the way for companies not supported by the turgid structures of the State at that time.

And it was also at The Space that Pieter-Dirk Uys finally established himself as the voice of the alternative Afrikaner:

The play that would be my “big break”, Selle ou Storie, only happened because there was no other option … Over tea and toasted cheese I suggested this Afrikaans play in the box under my bed … Selle ou Storie is a legend in its own way – and my fallibility was well and truly established. Carried by a bravado performance of exceptional range, power, timing and courage by Christine (Basson), it smashed its way into the consciousness of many young urban Afrikaners as they heard themselves speaking on stage for the first time. The conservatives hated the mixture of English and Afrikaans and the swearing. But for the others, their playwright had arrived!

It also attracted the attention of the censors, who banned the script when it went up north. And after that, Uys’s battle with the censors became legendary, inspiring endless skits on their lunacy. He states in one chapter that he sees his taxes as royalties for all the absurdities the government gave him to satirise on a daily basis. But when the government proceeded to ban a production just before its opening night, it led Uys to snap over a rather small issue. He left The Space in a huff over some money owed to an actress who hadn’t been paid. As he says, it was a minor issue he could have sorted it out quite easily.

“I could’ve just gone to Brian and said, ‘Pay her for God’s sake!’ And he would have found a way to do it. But after years of cutting the small cloth to fit the huge dream, there was no thread of common sense left.”

He and two Danish friends formed a company to tour just with his work. It was called SYRKEL. And it played its fist performance in St George’s Cathedral. And so the travelling player phenomenon that is Pieter-Dirk Uys was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

And this is only the beginning of the memoir! To find out more about his adventures taking his many, many productions on tour in this country and in Europe, and his long and continued battle with the apartheid government and later with the new government and its idiocies surrounding the AIDS fiascos, as well as his growing realisation of his homosexuality, read Between the Devil and the Deep. You will not regret it. 

The final words, however, should go to Uys himself. This actor/writer/producer/director says of his life in, and love of theatre:

It’s too late to wean me off this drug now. I’m an addict for life. And I’ll die one. Every night. On stage. And then rise up and acknowledge the applause.

LitNet: 16 August 2006

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