Worth the weight
We have (if the nationwide epidemic of rape is anything to go by) the most pathological gender relations. We have the most violent (unpoliced, unprosecuted or unimprisoned) criminals. We have the most corrupt (or inept, or indifferent) government. The most abominable gap between wealth and poverty, the most vexed legacy of racial conflict. These are the maudlin declarations one is lured into making when the vicissitudes of life in SA become overwhelming. Whatever “normal” may be — and we assume there must be normality in other countries, other continents — it seems fair to claim that our collective birthright is to carry, as the title of Neil Coppen’s latest play has it, “Abnormal Loads”: loads of guilt, fear, anger, prejudice, material privation, physical suffering. There are a few antidotes to this ailment of SA exceptionalism. One is to affirm, as teenage sage and wild-child Katrien Joubeit (Jenna Dunster) does midway through the play, that actually the whole world is “a fucked-up place”. Another is to turn, again and again, to the deeply complex history — or set of histories — that might explain how we got to where we are. But the challenge, as Coppen’s main protagonist Vincent Bashford Liversage (Mothusi Magano) learns, is not to adopt a fatalistic view according to which we are defined by our personal, regional and national pasts. Vincent is black — though, as he reminds us, with a white mother and a black father he is “technically coloured”. He has been raised by his maternal grandmother, Moira Bashford Liversage (Alison Cassels), who is fiercely proud of the English heritage represented by her twin surnames. She is also fiercely in denial: about the circumstances of Vincent’s separation from his parents; about her own complicity in perpetuating racial inequality; and about the changing sociopolitical landscape of that ostensibly Anglophile “outpost”, the former battlefields of the KwaZulu Natal midlands. Almost 30 years old, Vincent has never left the town of Bashford — named after its founder, his great-great-grandfather
William Bashford, a Tommy-turnedentrepreneur in whose 19th-century shadow Vincent continues to live out his mundane life. He is sheltered, nervous, bored and, in Magano’s portrayal, somewhat ponderous. But he is also restless and inquisitive, and as the play reaches its climax he has the opportunity both to leave the suffocating atmosphere of his grandmother’s home and to find out more about his parents. The catalysts to this process are Katrien, the local dominee’s rebellious daughter, and Prudence Ngobese (Fortunate Dhlomo), the youngest in a long line of Ngobeses who have served the Bashfords as farmhands and domestic workers. It is tempting to interpret Abnormal Loads as a narrative of young South Africans escaping from the constraints of colonial and apartheid-era family histories. Yet, as we are reminded in a haunting final tableau, long-suppressed traumas are revisited on later generations.
Here and throughout the show, the lighting design by Tina le Roux is highly effective, complemented by Gary Thomas and Tristan Horton’s sound and music, and Vaughn Sadie’s audiovisual effects. The use of props and the cast’s ensemble work is inventive and slick — tourists become soldiers, miniature houses represent the growing/crumbling town of Bashford, real and imagined figures drift in and out of Vincent’s imphephoinduced dreams. The steep slope of “Heliograph Hill” (which looms above Bashford as the scene of historical and contemporary conflict) dominates the set, facilitating multiple levels for the action. Abnormal Loads, which was Coppen’s Standard Bank Young Artist production at the National Arts Festival last year, has been (like his earlier plays Tree Boy and Tin Bucket Drum) critically acclaimed, but it is not enjoying the houses it deserves. Go and see it if you can. It’s at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg until May 13. Chris Thurman