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Sunday, March 18, 2012


(Pic by Val Adamson: Jenna Dunster and Clinton Small)

Neil Coppen researched and imagined the story of Abnormal Loads for at least five years but the sheer epic scale and characters required led him to believe that it would never be realised on the South African stage.

Not only did the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards panel recognise his talent in awarding him the 2011 Young Artist Award winner for Drama, which allowed Abnormal Loads to be performed in Grahamstown, it then went on to appear at the 2011 Witness Hilton Arts Festival. It is now running in the Playhouse Drama before transferring to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg for a run from April 11.

So, far from ever being realised on a South African stage, it’s appeared at four major South African theatre venues in less than a year and I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg for this excellent production.

When I reviewed Abnormal Loads at its world premiere at the 2011 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, I said that Neil Coppen had become a major force to be reckoned with in South African theatre. Seeing the play again last night in the beautiful Playhouse Drama, this belief is confirmed. Co-directed by Coppen and Janna Ramos Violante, it’s now tighter and easier to follow.

With its main focus being a fictional battlefield town in the once war-ravaged valleys of Northern 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.

Prospective audiences could think that 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.

There are three major characters. Vincent Bashford, a mixed-race descendant of the town’s founding father, who we first encounter sitting on his bed learning isiZulu. 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 again impresses in her role as the feisty grandmother (Moira) who has hidden an important secret for many years. Full of forthright youthful energy, Jenna Dunster generates most of the laughs as Katrien, the rebellious 16-year-old daughter of the NG Kerk dominee, who is determined to move out of her stifling environment. Her family also has a secret to hide.

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, Shayna de Kock and Itumeleng Maqekoane.

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. It also reminds us how history can be skewed to suit individual needs.

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.” As Vincent leaves his oppressive colonial-styled home, he is urged to take some mementos with him. He looks around and gives the pertinent reply – “it’s too heavy”.

Lighting by Tina le Roux and sound design by Tristan Horton is impressive and Neil Coppen’s set changes character under the various lighting stages. The width and depth of the Playhouse Drama gives maximum effect to Vaughn Sadie’s audiovisuals of clouds, battles and twinkling night skies while Gary Thomas’s original score adds an evocative finishing touch. The final scene is achingly beautiful.

Abnormal Loads is presented by Think Theatre in association with The Playhouse Company, with support by the Catalina Unltd, Arts and Culture Trust and The National Arts Festival. It runs in The Playhouse Drama until March 31. Performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 19h30, with 14h30 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays (no evening shows on Sundays). No show on March 21 (Public Holiday). Two morning schools performances will be given on March 22 (no evening show).

Early booking is strongly advised. Tickets R110 (R80 students and pensioners) booked through Computicket on 083 915 8000 or online at or Playhouse box office 031 369 9540 (office hours). School bookings through Margie Coppen on 031 266 1459 / 083 251 9412.

As I said in my Grahamstown review, don’t miss Abnormal Loads if it comes your way and KZN lovers of fine theatre have it right here on their doorstep until the end of the month. – Caroline Smart