Unpacking the baggage of history is not without comic drama by Niren Tolsi (First published in July 16th Mail & Guardian)
A week before the start of the National Arts Festival, an Anglo-Zulu skirmish unfolds on a hill made of pencil cedar. There is bloodshed and death, which appears to ooze down the richly textured slopes, and there the violence recedes — replaced by maids on all fours, their fastidious scrubbing somehow unable to erase the past’s stains from lingering in the air.
The rehearsal space of the Playhouse complex in Durban’s Mayville suburb is a flurry of activity as the rest of the 12-member cast rush through costume changes on the sidelines or scramble to their next mark in writer-director Neil Coppen’s Abnormal Loads.
At the back of the room, his chair leaning against a wall lined with storyboards, Coppen, the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama, is still. At times he mouths the actors’ lines — wincing when they stray from the script.
Occasionally, he scribbles notes on to a piece of paper. The young dramatist, who recently turned 30, is meticulous about detail — whether in research or in rehearsals.
Evident, even from a cursory meeting with Coppen, is a deep passion for the arts (film and theatre especially) and for ideas — a constant spur towards professionalism and perfection. This converges with a fascination with storytelling through theatre, which began when Coppen was taken to the musical Singing in the Rain as a six-year-old.
Coppen’s first play, Suicidal Pigeons, made its debut at the Red Eye art interventions in 2005 and since then he has created several theatre pieces, such as the critically acclaimed Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy, which, with an explorative use of multimedia and lighting, acknowledges his penchant for “the filmic on stage”.
“I suppose I am a frustrated filmmaker at heart,” says Coppen, who promises there will be similar effects in Abnormal Loads.
The next day when we meet he is apologetic, slightly embarrassed and obsessing about the past few days of rehearsal, especially the pace of the script and its comedic timing: “We had a fantastic rehearsal the night before and I think that led to a bit of over-confidence and complacency when you saw it,” says Coppen.
I assure him I was swept away by Abnormal Loads’s storyline and didn’t notice too much amiss — the play’s architecture, despite the misgivings of its creator, is finely constructed.
Coppen smiles and talks at breakneck speed about the month-long rehearsals being a “pretty egoless space” and the relish with which the cast — the largest he has directed — has taken to the work, their roles and the “character bibles” he has compiled for each one.
Abnormal Loads is set in the fictional northern KwaZulu-Natal battlefield town of Bashford and weaves together the story of three families (English, Afrikaner and Zulu) through generations ranging from the late 19th century and the Anglo-Zulu War to the present day.
There is the curmudgeonly matriarch Moira Bashford (Alison Cassels), a verbose battlefield tour guide who can recount the specifics of 100 years ago but struggles to remember the paternity of her patently dark-skinned grandson Vincent (Mothusi Magona of Tsotsi fame). Moira holds on to a particularly glorious version of her ancestors’ role in the town named after her family.
Vincent, mild-mannered and as spineless as a mollusc, meanwhile, is increasingly troubled by the vagueness of his personal history while his romantic interest is piqued by Katrien Joubert (Jenna Dunster) from an Afrikaner family that has a long — and disputed — history with the Bashfords.
An amalgamation of ghost story, love drama, historical epic and dark comedy, the events present and past unfold seamlessly.
“Abnormal Loads,” says Coppen, “is about the repetitiveness of our lives when we stay in the same place … About the history we access, or are allowed access to, the baggage we carry from parents and grandparents and whether we have the strength or the faculty to throw it away sometimes — and, if we do or don’t, the repercussions that has on our lives.”
Coppen talks about Doris Lessing’s collection of essays, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, and the questions it raises about people’s irrational instinct for polarised memory and truths, as one of the philosophical touchstones for Abnormal Loads.
It is a pertinent interrogation — especially as the new South Africa is being overwhelmed by a hegemonic nationalist interpretation of history in which, absurdly, even progressive elements in government still hold on to apartheid historiography to explain the past and justify the present. We joke about one example of this — the KwaZulu-Natal government removing Andries Botha’s sculpture of King Shaka from the new airport after complaints from the Zulu royal household that it made the famed “warrior” look like “a herdboy”.
Abnormal Loads came out of Coppen’s five-year infatuation with the histories of the battlefields in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Initially he was involved in a film project in the area (which failed) but he kept researching and writing scripts for another film.
“The film script became too unwieldy, but that was always in the background, and then I got a bit of impetus with the Vansa [Visual Arts Network of South Africa] 2010 to Live in a Small Town Project, which allowed me to return to it,” said Coppen.
He and multimedia artist Vaughn Sadie, who is also involved in Abnormal Loads, spent three months recording life histories and orchestrating artistic ventures in Dundee, a small town located among battlegrounds such as Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. They spent their time going through archives, hanging out with the Dundee Diehards re-enactment group, and drinking and talking to locals in the pubs.
Coppen and Sadie got schoolchildren to “creatively reinterpret local history” for visual installations and earned the nickname of “the pool cleaners” from locals after clearing a disused pool to stage an installation of the locals’ memory of the space.
“We staged an intervention with the Siwela Sonke dance group at night as part of a Shembe ritual and the old grannies were calling up a reporter to tell him about the half-naked figures gyrating around some parking meters,” Coppen says, laughing.
“It was scary but inspirational. It was interesting to see how disputed even recent history from a few months ago was in the small town. So imagine how subjective and tainted our memory of 100 or 150 years ago is,” he says.
Abnormal Loads is on the National Arts Festival’s Main programme. Friday July 1 at 2pm and 6.30pm, and July 2 at 4pm and 8pm