Captivating and heart-rending theatrical mastery

2011-07-18 00:00

NEIL Coppen’s newest work was royally praised at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown — and rightly so.

It’s a work of breathtaking scale, sweeping the audience from the Northern KwaZulu-Natal battlefields, where British soldiers fought both the Zulus and the Boers, to a modern-day small town, where the characters seem trapped in the past.

Durban-based Coppen, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama, was extremely nervous ahead of the first performance, and a power failure in the middle of it — which required the theatre to be evacuated for some 40 minutes — didn’t help settle those nerves.

He need not have worried. His talented cast, who morph from soldiers to servants, townsfolk to warriors, over the course of the play, help bring to life the fictional town of Bashford and its residents — past and present.

The show opens with the show’s central character, Vincent Bashford Liversage (Mothusi Magano), the mixed-race child of a student radical mother, Linda, and a political-activist father, Sizwe Gumede, sitting on a bed, trying to learn Zulu from a CD.

He believes both his parents are dead, and lives with his maternal grandmother, Moira (Allison Cassels), who is determined to keep the history of her family and the town founded by her ancestor William Bashford alive — even if it means keeping some family secrets deeply buried.

Vincent, meanwhile, is troubled by headaches, which his childhood friend and the family’s domestic worker, ­Prudence (Fortunate Dhlomo), believes may be the result of his ancestors trying to speak to him. She supplies him with herbs and encourages him to listen to the voices of the past.

Into this small-town world storms ­Afrikaans teenager Katrien Joubert (Jenna Dunster), who has been ­expelled from her old school, and brought to live with her dominee father. Katrien believes in breaking the rules, and boasts about the drugs she’s taken and her various conquests, something Vincent finds both fascinating and ­abhorrent.

Slowly, however, the relationship between them changes, setting in motion a chain of events that will shake both families to the core.

The chemistry between Magano and Dunster is fantastic, and a source for much of the witty humour in Coppen’s play, a deft touch which gives the audience some relief from the more drama-filled scenes.

Cassels, too, delivers a fine performance as an elderly woman at odds with the new South Africa.

They are more than ably assisted by Ntombi Gasa, Janna Ramos-Violante (who also co-directs), Clinton Small, Thomie Holtzhausen, Nhlakanipho Manqele, Nosipho Bophela and Julia Wilson.

And tribute must be paid to those ­behind the scenes — lighting director Tina Le Roux, Bryan Hiles, who crafted the miniature houses used in the play, and musical director Vaughn Sadie — who have all helped Coppen, whose ­previous works include the brilliant Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy, bring his ­epic to life.

Abnormal Load is a theatrical ­stunner, and should not be missed when it finally comes home to KwaZulu-Natal.


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