Back in 1975, Pieter-Dirk Uys and Trix Pienaar performed a comedy sketch in ‘Strike Up The Banned’, an anti-censorship revue at the old Space Theatre in Cape Town. Two years later, this spoof of the never-ending Springbok Radio soap operas airing at the time had expanded into a play and opened at the Baxter Theatre.
“We had family and friends who came quite a lot of times,” Uys recalls. “Then we went to Johannesburg and somehow it came at the right time. It was banned by the censor board, thank goodness. They are the best RP department you could wish for. We hit the front page of the newspapers in those days.”
A sense of operetta
Die Van Aardes Van Grootoor ran at the Market Theatre for 18 months. Fast-forward to the present and the production is set to premiere as a new musical, with book and lyrics by Uys (who also directs) and music by Godfrey Johnson.
“When I wrote the original script, every now and then there was a monologue from a character and I would put “Aria” in brackets,” Uys says. “So it already had that sense of operetta. And having worked with Godfrey on the Bambi Kellerman repertoire, we said let’s just do it and put it together.”
An adventure of styles and songs
The two have been working on the musical for about two years, a process Uys describes as “an adventure of styles and songs”. And while he acknowledges that there are so many amazing musicals that have become part of the soundtrack of life – Cape Town audiences have enjoyed a bumper year with a dozen different musicals and operas – he and Johnson aimed to create something familiar without copying what already exists.
“We both understand the basic skeleton of what it needs,” Uys says. “It needs humour, it needs clarity, it needs originality, and it needs repetition. And, in this case, it needs the echo of few other things, like boere liedjies (farmer songs). When you see the unity of it, the music is there all the time. It’s not just songs; it’s the whole ambience of the action.”
The crazy nonsense of life
The musical adaptation, with its hints of Dallas and Gone with the Wind, will focus on five of the radio serial’s 780 episodes (set in 1928, 1948, 1958, 1968, and 1978). Uys jokes that “at the end of the first half, everybody’s dead, more or less”.
“My constant reminder to everybody is that we’re doing something real,” he says. “It’s not stand-up and it’s not comedy, but the absurdities and the ironies and the crazy nonsense of life is the comedy. One has to play that balance of warmth and of love and of compassion with a bit of tongue in cheek.”
A young company of performers
When the play performed in Johannesburg in the late 1970s, many Afrikaans actors – including Antoinette Kellerman, Marthinus Basson, Lizz Meiring, and Casper de Vries – took part. Now Uys is “thrilled” to have a young company of performers that includes Natasha Van Der Merwe, Schalk Bezuidenhout, Caely-Jo Levy, Tankiso Mamabolo, Dean Roberts, Clarissa Roodt, Shalima Mkongi, and Louw Breytenbach.
“Working with other people is different,” Uys says. “First of all, when working on my own, I don’t rehearse. I mean, who must I rehearse to? The cat? The cat gives me a minute and then walks out.”
Sitting on the outside looking in
Another difference on this production compared to his others is that Uys is behind the scenes instead of out on stage. But he finds it wonderful and exciting to be sitting on the outside looking in, and is holding onto the strong vision he has for the show.
“I know from forty-five years of experience that once we get onto the stage – with the set, and the costumes, and the props – everything falls to pieces,” he laughs. “But that’s okay because we’ll have two or three days to build up the confidence… The conception happens in the rehearsal room; the birth happens on stage.”
A wide appeal
Uys confesses that he can never answer the question of who the audience is but believes that the musical will have a wide appeal. Not only will this include the generation of South Africans who saw the original show but, thanks to the cast, it should attract younger audiences too.
“We’re having a lovely time and that for me is the key to this sort of job,” he says. “It’s the F-word: fun. If we don’t have fun, nobody is going to enjoy it because it just looks like a schlep. But if we have fun, the audience will have fun too.”
Die Van Aardes Van Grootoor is at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from December 11 to January 6. Book at Computicket or www.pietertoerien.co.za.