Daring historical epic rewritten for Market stage

While at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year, Neil ­Coppen told me that he was thinking of bringing his play, Abnormal Loads, to Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.

I lit up at the idea of a brand-new production at the Market (a venue where productions are endlessly recycled). But I also wondered how feasible it would be to stage the production on the rather small main stage at the complex.

The stage at Rhodes University’s theatre, where the play premiered, is sunken and sprawling, easily lending itself to his production, whose defining feature is a raised, curved feature representing a mountain.

Coppen, recipient of the ­Standard Bank Young Artist award for drama for 2011, has significantly rewritten his production. So, instead of the stretched-out and repetitive play that was staged last year, what we have now is a tighter, manageable and, for that reason, much more enjoyable work.

In his programme notes from last year, Coppen said that the story was one he had been “researching and imagining for several years, yet owing to its epic scale” he felt the idea would never be staged.

Quintessentially tragic
It is the kind of play for which the word “epic” is apt. Spanning over two centuries, featuring whites and blacks, Abnormal Loads is set in that quintessentially tragic South African place in which the personal and the national intersect, one in which the 19th century rolls into the next. It is a story of empire and conquest, love and miscegenation.

Abnormal Loads makes liberal use of multimedia and sound to create a rich, striated ambience in which to narrate family history (with both a capital “H” and a small “h”).

For Vincent Bashford Liversage, ­history is not James Joyce’s anguished squeal of a “nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. In fact, the problem for him is that there is just too little of history for him to get by and make sense of his small, insular world.

Set in KwaZulu-Natal, the work opens as Bashford Liversage (played by Mothusi Makano), a person of mixed blood, is listening to audio isiZulu lessons. He is not well. He has a headache that will not go away. Not that his condition receives any favours from a querulous and overbearing grandmother, Moira ­Bashford Liversage (played by Alison Cassels).

He has gone for several HIV tests, his blood is clean, yet he feels ill. (Is he a hypochondriac who believes in his illness so much that his malady becomes him?) The family’s domestic worker believes that the persistent ailment could have something to do with his anonymous paternal heritage. She suggests a mind-altering substance, mpepu, which allows him to peep into the past.

The herb, as it were, is like a calloused hand that seizes him by his neck and forces him to stare into the scary, bloody abyss.

In evocative scenes of magical realism, he is able to look through the smoke and see aspects of his past obscured by the mist of time and a grandmother determined to seal off his paternal roots. Still, the dots will not join.

A subtext to all of this is the life and fate of a mixed-blood man, immersed in white culture, yet trying to make sense of the black blood that courses through him.

Vincent’s predicament evokes poet Derek Walcott’s line: “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, where shall I turn, divided to the vein?”

Abnormal Loads
is a demanding work, conceived by an epic mind. That is not to say the production has no faults. The story is still a tad too dependent on narration and sometimes is sidetracked by its incidental humour. Still, Abnormal Loads is a fascinating production by a daring young director.

Abnormal Loads
is on at the Market Theatre until May 13

Percy Zvomuya

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