national Arts Festival Banner

Sunday, July 3, 2011


(Pic by Val Adamson: Mothusi Magano with Alison Cassells in the background)

Neil Coppen becomes a major force to be reckoned with in South African theatre. (Review by Caroline Smart)

In his programme notes, Neil Coppen states that creating Abnormal Loads has been “the most intensive and rewarding process.” A story he has been researching and imagining for five years or more, the sheer epic scale and characters the production required led him to believe that it would never be realised on the South African stage.

Thanks to the vision of those who decide the winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards, Neil Coppen gets to see his dream realised in 2011 as last year’s winner of the Young Artist Award for Drama. This allowed him to take his research further and for several months he based himself in Dundee to work on the Dundee: Living within History project. All that research, archiving and following up on fascinating sources of information has resulted in an extraordinary production that places Neil Coppen fairly and squarely as a major force to be reckoned with in South African theatre.

Not that we didn’t know this already and we’re very proud of him in KZN. His Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy showed him to be a writer and director of sensitive skill and imagination, with a capacity to mix the scope of theatre and film or screened images in his journey of breaking new ground.

Co-directing with Janna Ramos Violante, Coppen describes Abnormal Loads as the result of his interest in “exploring how entwined our histories are as South Africans, how we tend to inherit and lug about ancestral baggage from past generations without ever knowing it.”

With its main focus being a fictional battlefield town in KwaZulu-Natal, although Isandhlwana itself features strongly, the story weaves through two centuries as present-day small-town characters begin to discover and piece together the actions of those who have gone before. Taking place in January, 1879, the Battle of Isandhlwana was considered a major defeat in the history of the British Army when over 20,000 Zulu warriors were victorious in what became the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War.

It would be understandable for prospective audiences to think they are coming to some kind of dramatic historical epic more grounded in battlefield academia than theatre. However, they would be way off the mark. Abnormal Loads is extremely funny with delightfully refreshing humour and some clever comedy lines. There is dramatic input aplenty as well as some beautifully handled scenes of much sensitivity.

The three major characters are Vincent – who we meet as we enter the theatre to find him sitting on his bed learning isiZulu from tapes. Mothusi Magano’s work in film and television perfectly fits his role as created by Coppen and it is a riveting performance throughout. Allison Cassels gives her usual credible and consistent approach to any character and gains our sympathy as the adoring grandmother (Moira) who has had to hide an important secret for so long. Full of forthright youthful energy, Jenna Dunster generates most of the laughs as Katrien, the young girl determined to break rules, get out of her stifling environment and move away from an over-protective brother. Here is another family with a secret to hide. However, Dunster needs stronger vocal projection to make sure none of her delicious lines get lost.

Providing solid back-up either in individual roles or as an ensemble are Fortunate Dhlomo, Ntombi Gasa, Janna Ramos Violante, Clinton Small, Thomie Holtzhausen, Nhlakanipho Manqele, Nosipho Bophela and Julia Wilson.

The scenes move swiftly and effectively, often with Moira as the narrator. Humour in all its forms abound within a story that holds tragedy, marital infidelity and love across the colour bar of the times. The lighting and visual effects are skilful yet subtle and Neil Coppen’s design of a large mound changes character under the various lighting stages and becomes a mountain, a platform of dripping blood or a set of floorboards.

Don’t miss Abnormal Loads if it comes your way. – Caroline Smart