Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Farewell Mrs MacBean


I woke to a blizzard over New York City and the news that my high-school teacher and dear friend Jean McBean had passed.

Sitting now twenty-six stories up, I watch the snowflakes spin and circle in great mists over Manhattan. A collision of memories, emotions, and lessons seem to echo the dance.

I recall now how Jeanie clocked me my first week of high school (alongside English teacher Geoff Mace) and quite magically created an environment for me– and countless other creative minded kids– where it was possible to forge and foster a creative-self. This in a school where rugby and more singular machismo-minded activities prevailed.

From the age of 14 Jean treated us like equals, adults and friends. She created the most fecund base for us to grow: a soil nourished as it was by love, knowledge and this unfaltering belief she had in our respective abilities and interests.
I am thinking now of the word legacy. What Jean has left behind, what of her will live on through the hundreds (if not thousands) of students she engaged and connected with over her lifetime as mentor and friend.

I’m thinking now what this word really means and how although Jeanie is now no longer with us, hundreds of reflective shards of her glimmer in past students scattered across the globe, hundreds of snowflakes each on their own delirious flight pattern, hundreds of seeds that were nurtured at that impressionable age and that have gone on to prosper now into fully fledged trees.

When my play Abnormal Loads was published a few years ago, I could think of no better person to dedicate the creative labour to.Such an opus would not have been possible without the love of history, literature and film she had given me.

She taught me History for five years in a row, she understood that the only way to make the subject live was by wrenching it out of the past, casting off the mothballs and setting it on fire in the present day imaginations of learners.

She was a winsome, melancholic and deeply thoughtful being (Bean) who often reminded us–through irrefutable Historic evidence– how full of bullshit the world was and is. She taught us that if we were ever to try fix it, we would need to constantly empathise, interrogate and question.

She taught us that creative outputs/responses were often the best (perhaps the only) means to achieve this. She taught us that such reflections could help us transcend the bullshit, albeit for a stanza of song…. verse of poem…. duration of a film….. we could be lifted (we could lift others) we could see beyond the blizzards of mediocrity and stupidity.

She taught me that affording someone that fleeting moment of flight… catharsis….. insight was a vocation worth spending ones lifetime pursuing.

It is Jeanie that reminds me today why teaching is the most noble and profound profession of them all. It is her “Legacy” that has allowed her to outwit death for her lessons continue, instilled in all of us and shared with others and so it goes, along the line, branching upward and outward through the trajectory of time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Jeanie not only single-handedly built the boat, instilled in each one of us the longing for that immeasurable immensity but she also gently nudged each one of our rafts from the shore, setting us on journeys around the world, journeys’ that are an ongoing testament to all she is… was and will forever be.

I sit here in New York pursuing my own play-writing dreams and watching this snow ballet from the 26th floor because of her.

Now the blizzard clears
Snowflakes’ melt on sidewalks.

Thank you Mrs McBean for the enduring and endless immensity of your lessons.


NewFoundLand by Neil Coppen



NewFoundLand is the latest play by Neil Coppen and focuses on the intertwining lives and dreams of two South African men Jacques: an Afrikaans anesthetist based in a Pietermartizburg community hospital and Sizwe: a choreographer and student at UKZN who has received a calling (Ukuthwasa) from his ancestors to become a Sangoma.

Both men have been raised in conservative communities and are attempting to forge spaces for themselves separate from the cultural, historical and religious forces that seem to bind them to the past.

When Jacques and Sizwe meet for a casual sex hook-up, what is meant to be a brief exchange turns into a profound journey into shared consciousness, and an exploration into the seemingly invisible materials that exist between religion and science, medicine and faith and memory and forgetting.

Coppen’s play has been described as a hallucinatory and unusual exploration of sexuality,love and loneliness in contemporary South Africa, and asks the question is forgetting a way of healing or an ultimate form of denial?

NewFoundLand has been developed in conjunction with Britain’s premiere playwriting Institute: The Royal Court and Coppen was recently invited to London for a staged reading of his work at the theatre as part of the New Plays from South Africa: after 20 Years of Democracy program.



Little Foot Early Concept Art


The following stills depict some initial concept art for the theatre production Little Foot which I am in the process of designing. The production is written by Craig Higginson and directed by Malcolm Purkey and will premiere at The National Arts festival in 2012 before transfering to The Market Theatre in JHB.

Featured in these pics is Mlondi Zondi as Little Foot. Photography by Val Adamson. Digital tweaks Colwyn Thomas. Art Direction and concept Neil Coppen. 



Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Making a Mountain


Making a Mountain

By Illa Thompson

Published in Independent on Saturday Art column

Charming, effervescent French-born innovator, designer, artist and maker of beautiful things, Xavier Clarisse, is literally making a mountain in his front garden…..

He is creating an essential element of the set for Neil Coppen’s multi-disciplinary dark comedic production which looks at the weight of history, Abnormal Loads, loosely inspired by Coppen’s three month residency in Dundee last year, which will premiere at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Clarrise is creating a Drakensberg mountain range which is beautifully crafted out of pencil cedar – a cubic meter of massive planks was purchased from the Drakensburg  not far from where the story is set.  The wood is fragrant, textured and has a colour palette from deep purple and majestic burgundy to a range of earth colours.   

Clarrise’s brief was for the mountain to be sturdy – as actors perform on it – and it needs to travel to Grahamstown, so it has to fold flat. Clarrise thought that initial variations looked more like “a roof made from slices of bacon,” until he and Coppen settled on the final design which is being brought to life in the garden of Clarrise’s beautiful Glenwood home. The final design came from studying the typography of the area and looking at copious drawings, photographs and paintings of Berg ranges. 

Read the rest of this entry »



Think Theatre & the Catalina Unltd with support from the Playhouse Company and in association with the National Arts Festival presents Neil Coppen’s Abnormal Loads.

Pre-production is well underway for KZN playwright Neil Coppen’s (Creator of Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy) newest play titled Abnormal loads, which will headline the main programme at this year’s Grahamstown festival before embarking on a nationwide tour.

Abnormal Loads has been commissioned as part of Coppen’s 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre.

 Set in a fictional Northern KwaZulu-Natal battle-field town known as Bashford, Coppen’s latest play has been described as a whimsical (at times bloody) praise-poem to the province of KZN and its myriad of characters and cultures.

After months of auditioning in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, Coppen is thrilled to have secured acclaimed film and TV star Mothusi Magano (Totsi, Hotel Rwanda and  hit SABC 3 TV series The Lab) and Isidingo’s Jenna Dunster (currently playing the role of Sofia Le Roux on the show) who will play the productions romantic leads.

Read the rest of this entry »



A renowned hip-hop poet and Graffiti artist friend of mine and I recently engaged into a drunken dinner-party debate/row over the ubiquitous tagging of public property going down in Durban.Tagging to my “mother-Grundy” mind, is a creatively hollow pastime appropriated and practised by bored “Banksy-befok” adolescents who like to think of themselves as “urban anarchists”.

The subject of our row was a local Durban tagger who had been recently trialed in court for 850 counts of tagging and now found himself slapped with a hefty prison sentence.

While I would not wish a prison sentence upon anyone, I would imagine that after 850 counts of tagging, one might decide to shift their lacklustre modes of rebellion in favour of a more effective means of urban commentary.

Time it would seem to grow up and move on.

“It’s not considered vandalism” my friend had argued, “if it doesn’t break or defeat the purpose of the object. Spraying something on a wall doesn’t destroy its function, the wall still stands. How can you tell me this is a punishable crime” he ranted, “when murderers and rapists in this country get off from their charges scott free?”

While (sub)urban hip-hoppers may consider it an “innocuous” and even “subversive” act, one must pity the grouchy local residents digging weekly into pensions for the buckets of paint to erase the offending marks from their walls.

Offering a refreshing and very welcome take on the contentious art form, is a group of ex Durban Vega Brand and Communications School students, who were inspired by the work of British street artist Paul Curtis (AKA “Moose”) who began pioneering his form ‘Green’ or ‘reverse Graffiti’ three years ago.

Curtis (legend has it) first hit upon the idea while working as a kitchen porter in a restaurant scrubbing mountains of pots and pans. One dreary evening while trying to erase a grease stain on the sink wall before him, he discovered he had cleaned a large white patch onto the grimy surface.

It didn’t take long before the aspirant street artist began conquering the cityscapes of London, applying his vigorous selective scrubbing to more prominent walls and bridges. (see 2 images below)

Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Elephant Debacle


Stupidity plummeted to new lows in Durban this week (with Sunday newspaper headlines that even satirists like Haibo might have been hard pressed to come up with) with the report that acclaimed artist and sculptor Andries Botha’s R1.5 million life-size elephant sculptures, made of recycled wood, metal and rubber, were ordered to be removed from a Durban free-way island, after passing ANC megalomaniacs found them reminiscent of the –shock horror— same unwieldy mammals gracing the IFP logo.

Let’s get one thing straight. With three sculptures, costing as much as this and weighing over six tons each, this was no trivial commission. This was no beaded chandelier or beach-front curio City- managers commissioned to dangle in their reception areas.

Predictably, Durban City-Manager Mike Sutcliff (currently enjoying the more wintry climes of Vancouver, Canada, where he is attending the opening of the Winter Olympics) issued his usual diss to Durbanites for “over dramatising” the situation and claiming that Botha’s Elephants were not passed through the correct procedures and committees before going ahead.

At the cost of R1.5 million one would imagine (but hardly hope) that the that city leaders and planners had pontificated long and hard enough before blowing tax payer’s money on an art work that is now in danger of being reduced to a pile of rubble because it has irked certain “elephant-sized” insecurities within the ANC.

At the same time, can we blame those who commissioned the sculptures? Should we pity eThekwini Municipality head: international and government relations Mr Eric Applegreen?

Could Mr Applegreen have ever in his wildest, woolliest dreams imagine that such preposterous claims would be laid against the sculptures and, more bizarrely, that such claims would seriously ever come to threaten the fate of Botha’s art-works.

The Elephant it seems is no longer allowed to be considered just an Elephant. No longer can we see it as a quintessential African symbol of power, freedom and grace. Rather the ANC would like us to believe that the Elephant© was created exclusively by and for the Inkatha Freedom Party, conceived, not by some higher power, but rather by a loopy illustrator armed with copious amounts of Ganja and a pencil.  Read the rest of this entry »



It is strange to be standing this side of the stage, when not so long ago, I was sitting in blazer and tie and sweating where you are, praying that self important ponce at the podium would keep it short and let us all get the hell out of here. So I will do my utmost to keep this presentation as short and valuable as possible.


I will not stand here today and give you a patriotic rant on having pride in your school and yourself.  These are all givens. I will try to avoid giving you an essay on tradition and discipline.

While I am extremely proud of my ties with DHS, it is not, I feel, in the limiting sense that some of the school’s old boys are.

The type of old boys who often claim that they attended DHS in its so called “glory days” and that after they left (and perhaps because they left) it all went to pot.

Given half the chance these types of men will bend your ear about what true discipline and respect was. Over a beer– or in their cases several– they might claim that DHS has gone to the dogs and that things, regrettably, just aren’t what they used to be. Read the rest of this entry »

The Molars Of Judgement



For any sane person (that is one not overly fond of dental sadism) a trip to the dentist’s chair is avoided at all costs. No one enjoys a gloved hand poking around their mouth. No one looks forward to the injections, the drills. The saliva vacuum cleaner which makes me feel as if I have just leapt out of an aeroplane and forgotten to shut my mouth on the free fall.


For most of my life I have managed to avoid the Dentist for anything other than the odd check up and clean. That was until a few months ago, when I woke to discover a rumbling in my gums, a headache that threatened to split my cranium in two. Days later an X- ray confirmed that after years of waiting patiently in the wings, my wisdom teeth had finally decided to make their entrance

Read the rest of this entry »

« Older Entries