An epic tale of family and shared history

2011-09-09 14:02

The Witness Hilton Arts Festival kicks off on Thursday. On the bill is Abnormal Loads, created by Standard Bank Young Artist winner for Theatre Neil Coppen. Gayle Edmunds takes a look at the KwaZulu-Natal line-up.

Abnormal Loads faced some challenges when it was staged at the Rhodes Theatre in Grahamstown. It overcame them all and the show, born out of a three-month residency creator Neil Coppen had in Dundee, in the thick of KwaZulu-Natal’s battlefields, is an exciting piece of new theatre.

It delves into identity as well as getting to grips with how we interact with the past, apply it to the present and move beyond it into the future.

Coppen says he has tweaked the show a little since its June debut in Eastern Cape, but then the National Arts Festival is the beginning of a piece of art’s journey rather than a destination. This especially when it comes to new work that is being staged for the first time.

Coppen says: “I have moved the scenes around so the action starts sooner.” He adds that he has “cut out some of the clunky bits in the middle”.

As for me, I thought there was a lot more right with Abnormal Loads than wrong when I saw it in Grahamstown.

The play boasts a large cast representing three families in the fictional town of Bashford, where the battlefields of South Africa’s history intersect.

Moving back and forth in time as it tells the tales of these families, the play is ultimately about similarity rather than difference. The filmic elements Coppen introduces into the storytelling process give this piece the sensibility of a sweeping epic.

Though Coppen says that for the Hilton Festival run he has had to adapt these elements because of the challenges and confines of the space, he’s still confident that the solution he’s found will make the play even better.

“The framework is still there, it’s just the reshuffling,” says Coppen, adding that the cast have been at work assimilating the changes to the script that grew out of a week-long reading and tweaking session at Joburg’s Market Theatre after Grahamstown.

Mothusi Magano is Vincent Bashford, the central character of the piece. He is the mixed-race grandson of the town’s matriarch, who controls the historical society and conducts the tours. In this way, she ensures the version of history Bashford presents is hers.

She also keeps Vincent from exploring any but his Bashford roots, denying him his Zulu heritage – something that ultimately leads him to revolt against her and inadvertently unravel the carefully maintained façade of the townfolk.

Coppen adds, with mischief in his voice, that the Hilton Festival is geographically closest to the place and people that he has created, so he’s interested in having “a dig at them and see how they like it”.

But, really, Abnormal Loads is a microcosm of South African society that interrogates the struggle all of us have in processing the past without letting it retard our progress into the future.

» Abnormal Loads is at Grindrod Bank Theatre in Hilton, near Pietermaritzburg, at 6pm on Thursday and 5pm on Friday. To book 0?033?383?0126 or visit

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