I first encountered the work of Neil Coppen in 2011 when he was in named the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Drama. I was blown away by the gorgeous work, Abnormal Loads, he created for that.
Recently I saw his Tin Bucket Drum, directed by Jade Bowers starring Warona Seana for the University of Johannesburg.
Last week I found myself at The Market Theatre seeing Animal Farm. The book by George Orwell is a political satire novella first published on 17 August 1945, poking fun at the Soviet Union. It is a set work this year. It was a set work forty years ago when I first read it. Time Magazine have listed it as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. The book is as fresh today as it was when it was written and Neil Coppen’s theatrical production has some magnificent moments of contemporary South African political humour.
So, Coppen starts with a good story, and then he puts his considerably creative personal stamp on the work, teasing out the elements of the tale which make it a classic. To name them all can only result in a didactic feel and that is not my intention. Costumed in military camouflage, with some small touches in costuming to distinguish the animals from one another (and from humans), we find a cast of only five – all women. There is no outstanding character. This is an ensemble work. The casting, however, is genius. Mpume Mthombeni (Napoleon), Mandisa Nduna (Squealer ), Khutjo Bakunzi-Green (Boxer), Zesuliwe Hadebe (the chicken narrator) and MoMo Matsunyane (the narrator sheep) all engage one fully. Each of the actresses does a superb job of bringing the characters of this African Animal Farm to life as the plot unravels at a surprisingly rapid pace.
One of Coppen’s signatures is the exquisite use of shadow work (created here by Boipelo Moeti), and this production charmed me with this aspect. Of course, it is not only the cleverness of the symbolism of the shadow, but the spot on execution of what is actually a very difficult medium which, if not done well, could be a problem. It was done well. Tina le Roux did the lighting and she really captured the mood with great skill, keeping the faces visible against the dark background and the shifting light requirements.
The set is clever. It has to be simple and durable because the production moves from recognised theatre spaces out into the community where school halls are likely to be primitive in as much as they can provide theatre equipment. Despite this, it doesn’t ever feel shortchanged when one sees it in a space like the John Kani at The Market Theatre.
All round the production is slick and clever – a beautiful adaptation of one of the 20th Century’s best loved novellas. It doesn’t matter if one knows the work upon which the play is based well or not at all – the theatre piece stands on its own. Catch it at The Market Theatre only until 6 September 2015 (a very short run for this wonderful production).