ArtsLeisure On the stage
WITH the romantic melodrama of a telenovela, the past-meets-present lessons of a historical drama and the quest for identity of a contemporary South African play, Neil Coppen’s ABNORMAL LOADS is locked and loaded with the potential to be a jumbled bag of goodies, all fighting for prominence. Happily, the swirling mishmash of genres comes together in a lucid, arresting whole that firmly positions last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama as one of the country’s most exciting young play-writing talents. We have seen from previous Coppen plays such as the simple but eloquent Tin Bucket Drum and the ambitious Tree Boy — both at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown — that he not only has a flair for storytelling but also for imbuing a narrative with a striking visual idiom. This is of critical importance in theatre today, as it becomes increasingly tricky to seduce the eyes and ears of audiences that, given half a chance, would rather be fiddling with their BlacId3errys. While the story always has to take prominence, drawing the viewer into the action with a strong visual component can cement the deal. Abnormal Loads, which premiered at Grahamstown last year and has now made the trek up to Johannesburg’s Market Theatre (until May 20), gets the balance spot-on. It has been sculpted and fine-tuned to make it even more riveting than it was in its original incarnation. Coppen hails from Durban and, true to the advice to “write about what you know”, has set his play in his own backyard: in the fictitious hamlet of Bashwood among the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields. This is a community mired in its colonial past and largely unwilling to embrace the here and now, let alone the future. It is a town riven by inequality and dissent over, for example, the changing of street names, and this theme of silent yet inevitable change forms a subtle backing track to the plot. We are greeted by the sight of a young, bespectacled black man listening to Zulu-English audio tapes. The incongruity is that Vincent Bashford Liversage (Mothusi Magano of The Lab and Touch My Blood fame) is not learning English, he’s learning Zulu. Nearby is a servant sweeping vigorously: stirring up dust that has been dormant for too long. This intriguing paradox sets the scene for a compelling love story meets supernatural thriller. Vincent is the product of a forbidden interracial liaison. Taken in by his formidable grandmother, Moira Bashford Liversage (Alison Cassels), he is raised as a Bashford — the pioneer and soldier who founded the town. But he hardly fits the picture of a noble descendant: he is a hypochondriac stuck in a dead-end life in a dead-end town. And to make matters worse, his grandmother wants him to play his legendary ancestor in a historical re-enactment of the fateful battle between William Bashford and his Afrikaans neighbour, a family feud that has persisted for a century But then Vincent meets Katrien (Jenna Dunster), a free-spirited juvenile delinquent. Her rebellious nature and romanticised notions of freedom awaken something within him, but the burden of history and expectation, coupled with the sins of the fathers, appear too steep a mountain to climb. This is symbolised by the play’s centrepiece, Heliograph Hill, the site where two illicit lovers exchanged coded messages more than 100 years before, and where William Bashford met his end. Both physically and metaphorically, Vincent and Katrien are living in the shadow of history, vividly suggested by the use of silhouettes, shades and echoes from times gone by, and dazzlingly lit horizons. This is a love story about outsiders who yearn to be the Bonnie and Clyde of the battlefields, to escape and map out their own identity and future. It’s about the absurdly heavy loads people carry in the name of duty, and about those that shelter them from the present instead of letting them learn from the past. Although thematically, and in its battlefields-nostalgia setting, there are similarities with Greg Latter’s Death of a Colonialist, Abnormal Loads stands on its own as a forceful and penetrating play that glows with humour, drama, mystery and humanity As the work of a young playwright, it displays extraordinary insight and maturity and may just herald a buoyant new era of South African drama.