Neil Coppen

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Retracing History by Mary Corrigall (published in The Sunday Independent, June 05, 2011)

June26

Mary Corrigall chats to Neil Coppen about his new play, a black comedy that deals with history

IF ANY set of events best encapsulates the manner in which South African history is contested, it would have to be the debacle around Andries Botha’s notorious R3 million sculpture of Shaka. Not long after Botha’s likeness of the Zulu warrior king took its position outside Durban’s new airport, it was removed. It was said that King Goodwill Zwelithini and his royal household felt the statue was a poor representation of Shaka. They believed it cast the celebrated Zulu figure as a herd-boy rather than a powerful warrior. In a seemingly absurd gesture, a task team of historians and researchers were formed to investigate its appropriateness, as if it was something that could be quantified and verified.

Playwright Neil Coppen observed the shenanigans with amusement and interest. For almost six years he had been working on a novel centred on the politics and impact of history on the present. The narrative was still fragmented, its essence still embedded within numerous newspaper clippings he had been collecting. The stories were as absurd as they were revelatory of the status quo, such as one where a statue celebrating

the new political authority was dismantled because it was 10cm shorter than a colonial effigy situated nearby. A story was begging to be a told. More importantly, Coppen believed it had the makings of his first black comedy. With a substantial amount of money in his pocket, gleaned from winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre in 2010, he was given the impetus to start weaving the threads of this narrative together.

It was only when he took up a residency in Dundee, a hamlet in Kwazulu-Natal, that the story began to coalesce in his mind. With over 68 battle sites in the area, Dundee was steeped in history – overshadowed by it. Coppen’s stay in Dundee was part of an art project dubbed Two Thousand and Ten Reasons to Live in a Small Town, which he had undertaken with artist Vaughn Sadie. The duo documented locals’ histories and instigated a number of interventions and performances. Despite the area’s rich history, it was the inhabitants’ relationship to the recent past that sparked Coppen’s imagination.

“A restaurant had burnt down a few months ago. I asked the owner what happened. Then I asked a policeman who we met a week later. Everyone had a different version – and this was three months after the event. That got me really excited. If this is what happens after three months then can we really trust what we know about what happened 150 years ago?”

Coppen became fascinated by families who had lived in the area for generations. “(Their ancestors had) been settlers or Indian traders who had arrived at the turn of the (last) century. I am interested to see what happens when you don’t move from a property.”

Such instances not only make people’s ties to the past more readily traceable but also, in a place such as Dundee where few moved away, he was able to identify ways in which their histories are intertwined. In Coppen’s play, he narrows the interaction to three interlinked fictional families: an English, a Zulu and an Afrikaans one.

“It is interesting to see how the dynamics between them have emerged over generations. They are people who have grown up together but are so separate. The servants are not family friends. There have been six generations of servitude. How do you escape this cycle?

“We see how decisions that happened between the families have repercussions now, without them even knowing it.” Ultimately, Coppen is interested in “how much of the past we carry and how much of that is a good thing”. “There comes a time in the play when a protagonist makes quite a drastic decision to sever from everything. I am not proposing we necessarily do that but when you see where he has come from… .”

The burden of history is succinctly expressed in the title of the play, Abnormal Loads, evoking the label affixed to the bumper of Brobdingnagian trucks. Just as the designation refers to vehicles carrying extraordinarily large cargo, Coppen suggests his protagonists, or South Africans in general, are unusually burdened by their history.

“How much of our history is in our genes? I believe we pass it down from one generation to the next. We carry the insecurities, the joys and the losses of the hundreds of people who have come before us.”

In this way, Coppen implies that South Africans have become victims of our past, and in carrying the wounds of bygone generations we might pre-empt new tragedies. Have we neglected to interpret and process the past, I ask the young playwright. “If you look at the situation now, what have we learnt from the past? We went through a lot (to change the political, social conditions) but we have slipped back into the way things were 50 years ago. We haven’t learnt enough. When you see the divisions in our society now, I think it shows we have learnt very little. The play looks at freedom and who is free.”

The characters in Coppen’s play are caught in a never-ending cycle. “Everyone is living the same lives and same stories as their ancestors. It becomes uncanny how the past is repeating itself. The play builds up to a re-enactment of a (historic) skirmish on the hill (near the town). They realise through this re-enactment that there is the potential for history to come full circle. The characters are then forced to make a decision: are they going to re-enact history or are they going to turn their backs on it and create a new history, a new story?”

Of course, there are many, particularly older white South Africans, who are resistant to change, observes Coppen. The sentiments of this population group are embodied in a character named Moira. “She is the doyenne of the town. She has lived in it for 60 years. She guards the colonial history and she watches the streets being renamed. Everything that makes the town familiar to her is being changed completely. “I don’t think that is bad at all. In Durban there have been debacles over name changes. It is interesting to see how history changes hands. It becomes about different extremes.”

Naturally, it has become politically incorrect to cherish colonial history or history told from a colonial point of view. I ask Coppen whether we should acknowledge the sense of loss folk such as Moira experience when their history or their perceived connection to it is being eroded and the sense of disorientation that condition generates.

“It will be interesting to see how the play is received. I certainly am not mourning the loss of that history. The character is – and she feels strongly about it, as do many elderly white people I have met in these towns.“Dramatically, it is interesting to see their whole world become unfamiliar to them – their inability to direct someone to their front door because they don’t know how to pronounce the name of the street they live on.”

Abnormal Loads might tackle weighty material but Coppen has put a comedic spin on the narrative, although he expresses anxiety that his black comedy “might end up being a tragedy”. In the past local playwrights have preferred to embrace a more severe mode of expression while unpacking our vexed past. Some might even say we have been reflecting on it through a rather dour lens. Certainly, there is a feeling in some quarters that South African culture has been held captive by the documentary mode.

 Coppen has taken inspiration from real-life encounters and events, sentiments reported in newspapers and the research he conducted in Dundee, so on some level the world he presents in Abnormal Loads is rooted in reality. However, he has taken many fictional and historical liberties. The play is set in a fictional town, named Bashford, thus alluding to the violent skirmishes that mark its history. He has also borrowed from the histories of Ladysmith and Newcastle. The humour in Abnormal Load reflects the absurdity of South African existence, asserts Coppen.

“It’s not hard to satirise South Africa. Some of the things that happen here are unbelievable.” The characters’ responses to this “looking glass world”, as Imraan Coovadia termed it in his novel High-Low In Between, proves another rich source of humour.

“Moira is a sort of Tennessee Williams faded old flower character. She is not politically correct; her version of history is not in vogue anymore. It’s a kind of comedic tragedy because she still lives in that world (in her head). She is quite garrulous and humorous and entertaining. She writes to the local newspaper about the state of the potholes and all the municipality cock-ups.” The comedic tone also mirrors the manner in which Dundee locals have appealed to humour as a means of transcending a small-town existence and the heavy history that burdens it.

“There are these funny Afrikaans girls in the play who use their imaginations to escape. They start inventing scenarios for their ancestors. It becomes a little dangerous later on when it comes to echo what actually occurred.”

Like Coppen’s last production, Tree Boy, which premiered at the National Arts Festival last year, Abnormal Loads will be a rich visual experience. This time round he won’t be relying on animation; instead he has rounded up a number of individuals from different disciplines to create a multilayered artistic production. It has an original score, a live choir and a cast of 11. Coppen talks of it being cinematic in terms of its visual proportions and impact.

“It’s terrifying to see how big it really is. I am out of my depth at times, working on this scale.” A production of this scale is usually only reserved for bankable big musicals.“Sometimes I wonder if it is financial suicide. But the thing about the Standard Bank Award is that you should take the risk. Now is the time.”

If he strikes the right note, Coppen believes he will have created a production “never seen on the stage before”.“The play moves through 150 years of history quite quickly in a way that is not arduous or mundane. It is not a didactic or political rant but an engrossing, entertaining story.” Most importantly, Coppen will be relieved, anxious and excited to release the story he has been “holding in my head for so long.”

Abnormal Loads will premiere

at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown

from June 30 to July 2.

Two Thousand and Ten Reasons to

Live in a Small Town is on exhibition

at the Goethe-On-Main gallery

in Johannesburg until June 12

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