Signalling history from Heliograph Hill

Posted on May 7, 2012
Abnormal loads, the critically acclaimed South African play currently on at the Market Theatre, is positively steeped in history. Set in Bashford, a fictional battlefield town in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the ambitious, complex, insightful and often laugh out loud funny play shifts between past and present to tell the story of the founding families of the town and the unlikely romance between Vincent Bashford, the shy, awkward mixed race grandson of English doyenne, Moira, who is trapped by the holes in his own history, and Katrien Joubert, a 16-year-old tearaway daughter of the local dominee who is set on escaping the town and the burdens of suppressed pasts.

Inventive use of light, space, and audio-visual effects, coupled with an excellent script and great performances, come together to create a uniquely South African melding of the political and the personal that grapples with the complexities of race and identity, and forces consideration of what we choose to forget as we remember and re-enact our pasts.

Catherine Kennedy, director of the South African History Archive, talks to the writer and director, Neil Coppen, about tackling over a century of history in 90 minutes on stage.

CK: What drew you to the idea of the battle field town, a space so defined, and arguably burdened by its past, as the setting for the play?

NC: Small towns in this county are a microcosm of the South African condition. All that complexity one finds in a sprawling urban cityscape is contained in far more claustrophobic confines ... I suppose it's more manageable for a writer to scrutinize things under this sort of microscope.

You have all these cultures living and surviving, clashing (and occasionally thriving) on top of one another. Fear, discomfort, compassion, tolerance, prejudice are amplified and the playing fields are levelled - co-existence happens across rickety fences rather than storey-high walls. My fictional town of Bashford is closely modelled on towns like Dundee and Ladysmith which are at the epicentre of South African history in the sense they are surrounded by battle-field sites (including Insandlwana, Blood River and Spioenkop). Such politically loaded terrains, where various histories and cultures have collided over centuries are fertile grounds for new South African stories.

CK: What is it about re-enactment, the compulsion to re-enact history that interests you to the extent that you placed the idea (somewhere near) the centre of the play?

NC: Around six years ago I met a re-enactment group called the 'Dundee Die Hards' who were re-enacting campaigns fought in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. I attended a few of their performances and became fascinated at using the idea of re-enactment as a metaphor for exploring our individual relationships to history. There's something rather telling (if not absurd) about grown men running about dressed up as their ancestors, firing blanks at one another and fighting battles whose outcomes have been pre-determined centuries ago. In many ways, I feel we are still fighting those same battles and certainly still grappling with their consequences here in the present.

At the same time I was thinking about writing a satirical comedy set in small South African town. I had met a variety of town- folk over the years that soon began to take shape as characters in my head. Initially it felt far too ambitious to fit on the stage but after I won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (and was commissioned to create a new work for last year's Grahamstown Festival) I thought I'd give it a bash. Before writing the play I went to live in Dundee with artist Vaughn Sadie for three months on a VANSA residency and this first-hand account of small town life gave me the confidence to finally sit down and pen the play.

The idea of re-enactment functions throughout the play in various ways. There is the actual re-enactment of a scene from the Anglo-Boer War in which my protagonist Vincent is reluctantly cast. At the same time, the three principal characters are all in some way re-enacting history in their own personal lives and capacities, most of them bound to repetitive cycles and patterns.

Moira in her role as a local history tour guide is an unreliable narrator whose telling of her own family history (a form of re-enactment in itself) very clearly disregards the dubious parts of her ancestors' stories. The Afrikaans teenager Katrien's re-enactment is two sided. On the one hand, she becomes obsessed with two contemporary criminals on the run from the police and attempts to embroil Vincent into re-enacting this escape fantasy with her. When this fails, she turns to the tragic love story of a great-grandmother and lets this narrative comes to define her story in the present. Katrien's flaw, like Moira's, is that she is unable to separate myth from fact and reality from re-enactment. And so it is that history, if one lets it, can come full circle.

And of course the idea that this story is being told theatrically (nightly for a live audience) means that the whole play is a re-enactment within a re-enactment within a re-enactment ...

How do you think the act of keeping secrets intersects with the telling of histories, the (un) settling of identities?

One of my favourite lines in the play occurs where Vincent confronts his grandmother Moira about his recent family history, saying to her: 'You can remember what William Bashford ate for breakfast 150 years ago but you can't remember what happened less than thirty years ago.'

Moira is more comfortable dwelling in what we could term a distant mythical past where the truth is less easy to discern and grand heroics are embellished over cruel fact. A history that lurks in living memory is obviously more painful (and perhaps less malleable) and Moira has managed to supress this entirely, a selective sort of amnesia we know all too well here in South Africa.

Moira turns the story of her ancestors into a sweeping Mills & Boon Saga, a fairy tale which she unashamedly presents as non-fiction to anyone unlucky enough to have to endure an historical tour with her through the the region.

I'd like to think that the play demonstrates that this sort of historic escapism, this skewing of fact is only possible for so long - the truth is a restless and relentless creature which ultimately finds the way to the surface.

There is also the strange, secret love affair between Vincent and Katrien. I truly believe there is nothing truly provocative left in the taboo of an inter-racial relationship. I like to focus on character studies that offer more complex alternatives to what we have come to expect as South Africans. I also think it is our duty as writers to work very consciously to subvert stereotypes as opposed to simply pandering to an audience's expectation of them. Vincent may be black but he has been raised by a conservative white colonial grandmother - this again confuses the issues, blurs the boundaries and I hope rejuvenates our conversations around things like race and identity. Katrien, despite being the daughter of a NG Kerk dominee has not inherited his limited worldview. She has formed her own opinions and ideas about the world around her. I am reminded of a great Zulu idiom which an elderly gentleman in Dundee taught me: 'Umfundisi akamzali Umfundisi' which loosely translated means: 'A minister doesn't give birth to a minister.'

CK: You are also adapting this play into a screen production; tell us a little bit about that and how that process is coming along?

NC: I am currently in the process of adapting the play into a screenplay. I initially conceived this story as a film and am looking forward to fleshing it all out onto a larger canvas. The landscapes of Northern KZN I reckon would provide the perfect cinematic backdrop for such a story. Producers who have circled the project are naturally wary because of the historic scale of it all and obviously theatre allows one to take more suggestive liberties than film does. The film version would be a significant departure from the stage play in the sense that film allows one to get away with less talking and more showing which appeals to me more and more as a storyteller.

Abnormal Loads is running at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from April 11th - May 13th 2012.

Catherine Kennedy is the Director of the South African History Archive (SAHA). She writes in her personal capacity.