In the armpit of the enemy
Your new show, the echo of a noise, opened this week. do you still get opening-night nerves after 70 years on earth and 45 years on stage?
The biggest strain on an opening night is sorting out that list [of people] who expect to be invited ... Nerves are a funny thing. I rather say: I am excited on opening night, because excited means I can do it; nervous means I can’t. The feeling is still the same; you want to kots [vomit] and poep [poop] and run, but there’s a smile on your face and your tail is wagging.
How have audiences changed over this time?
In the old days of darkness, the few theatres I was allowed into – The Space, The Market and the Elizabeth Sneddon – protected the small flames of free speech. There we played to the converted. But slowly I managed to subvert the resistance and then played the Pretoria Opera House and the Nico Malan in Cape Town. I understood my colleagues’ discomfort at not boycotting those venues, but that is where I needed to be: in the armpit of the enemy, making them laugh at themselves and maybe realise how ridiculous their superiority was in the eyes of relatively sane people. Today what I say on stage is only my opinion and voice because happily everyone has freedom of expression in tone and tweet.
In this one you are sitting on a barstool in an ‘almost famous’ t-shirt and a black beanie. is it true that you don’t consider yourself entirely famous?
I have never done that: sitting on anything. Always on roller skates from one icon to the next aikona. The T-shirt I found in New York and it is such a delight to see people double-take and say: “Really? Almost Famous?” Then I can say: “Ja-nee, except at the Spar in Darling. There totally famous!”
To me you will always be one of my queer mothers and famous as f**k for standing up in a time we were illegal.
I am so thrilled to meet young – sometimes not that young – gay men who say that my nonsense with Evita and her family during the 70s and 80s helped them confront their own fear and socially imposed shame. I remember in 1985 in a hotel in Bloemfontein, a journalist from the Volksblad confronted me with that dreaded question: ‘Are you a queer?’ I took a deep breath. ‘I am homosexual on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m heterosexual. On Fridays, I’m bisexual. On Saturdays, I do it myself and, on Sundays, I rest.’ Even that old fascist f*cker had to laugh.
What are you chatting about in the
I think now that I’ve passed that road sign that says, ‘You can speed over 70 now’, I can leave the security blankets of characters and the disguise of monsters, madams and moffies, and just tell the stories behind the story. Of being a young boy in that old South Africa, fighting with a strict father, adoring a mother who allowed me to enjoy and not to fear. How the bumblebee of theatre stung me and changed my life. How censorship from a humourless government gave me the courage to use their violence and reinvent humour at their expense.
Will you perform till jesus comes back?
I hope Jesus comes back soon, because I have an empty seat in the second row that I keep for a special person. But sadly, Jacob Zuma has never attended my shows. The Echo of a Noise is at the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town until June 18
QUEEN P Pieter-Dirk Uys tells the stories behind the story