Interview with award-winning actor, director and playwright, Neil Coppen

Neil Coppen.

Neil Coppen.

Award-winning, actor, director and playwright, Neil Coppen, is staging his adaptation of the George Orwell classic, Animal Farm, at the Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College this weekend. 

While the themes, characters and ideas behind Orwell’s text remain unchanged, his production tells the story with a uniquely South African slant. The play features an all-female cast: Momo Matsunyane, Mpume Mthombeni, Khutjo Bakunzi-Green, Mandisa Nduna, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Tshego Khutsoane. spoke to him ahead of the festival, which starts today and ends on Sunday, September 20.

Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Durb’s and attended Clifton Prep and Durban High School.

When did you begin your journey into the performing arts?
One of the first stage productions I saw as a six-year-old (Singing in the Rain) left such an indelible impression on me, that I knew then and there that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Which hat do you prefer wearing, that of a director, writer or performer?
I love the theatre-making process, which for me means writing, designing, directing and collaborating in telling original South African Stories. I like to think my days of performing are done for the moment. I’m trying to hone my focus and acting takes me away from creating new plays.

Tell us a bit about some of the places your Animal Farm adaptation has toured to?
The production has been seen by over 10 000 pupils around Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Since its inception in 2014, the production has played at The Playhouse in Durban, The Hexagon Theatre in Pietermaritzburg, The Market Theatre, The Johannesburg Theatre, The Roodepoort Theatre and the Soweto Theatre.

It’s been performed for schools and general public, how have different audiences responded to it?
Orwell’s story is a beloved classic so most people arrive at the play with some sort of connection or history to the source novel.

The South African setting makes this a production that everyone, across generations and cultures, can identify strongly with.

I never created the show just to appeal to high-school pupils. I simply set out to make the most exciting and engrossing piece of theatre and do justice to a timeless text in the process.

The responses have been incredible whether it a 16-year-old attending the theatre for the first time or a hardened theatre fan.

What prompted you to look at adapting this classic?
I was commissioned to create a stage production that remained close to the source novel and brought the story to vivid theatrical life for local audiences.

Of course what speaks to us on the page doesn’t always hold up on the stage so it’s really about mining the theatricality from the material.

Animal Farm’s episodic nature works well in the novel format but dramatically I had to find a way to pull it together and hone the focus a little.

Theatre needs a pace and structure that the novel doesn’t rely on so it’s about been mindful to the source material but also feeling free enough to interrogate it through an entirely different medium and format.

Theatre is also a visual medium so it’s about working out what to show as opposed to tell.

I suppose my aim was to excite young audiences about the novel and the theatrical medium itself. I think a large portion of the audience seldom attend theatre so it’s great to remind them what a magical and visceral experience it can be.

Our version of Animal Farm doesn’t shy away from the darkness and brutality that lies at the heart of Orwell’s haunting allegory. This is NOT a cutsey Disney story about talking animals! I wanted to keep the elements of satire and parody but was cautious to ever let it slip into pantomime territory.

I’m a huge fan of the masters of political satire, particularly Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. I’ve toyed for some time with the idea of South African theatrical adaptations of both Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. The commentary these books make are timeless and pertinent to a South African context: in the way they reflect on the human condition, power, class and the everyman trying to make sense of the whole mess. It’s the sort of universality and relevance that I strive for in my own work.

So with Animal Farm I feel very close to the material and can identify instantly its resonance here in South Africa. I had never seen the production on stage before nor read any other adaptations of it. It allowed me to really create an adaptation that isn’t derivative of other versions. I had to conceive the novel for the stage from scratch, sifting it through my own imagination to envision how it play out on the stage.

Before writing the adaptation I read the book several times. Each time I read it a new panic would set in. It became a very daunting task in that Orwell’s story is so epic, there are major battle scenes between animals and humans and over twenty beloved characters to include and depict.

As I was commissioned to adapt the production for school’s audiences, I had to find a way to stay true to the text and characters and not take liberties that might confuse students.

So the whole process was a tricky balancing act. I suppose one of the biggest challenges I faced was how do human actors go about portraying a range of farm animals on stage.

I wanted to avoid having actors scampering around on all fours snorting and braying for the entire duration of the play (or buried under cumbersome masks and costumes for that matter) and so I had to find a way of achieving this.

Working with choreographer Daniel Buckland and the five actresses, we found a way to physicalize and embody the animals rather than try make them too literal.

Neil Coppen's Animal Farm is one of the must-see shows at the Hilton Arts Festival.

Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm is one of the must-see shows at the Hilton Arts Festival.

You use an all female cast, what inspired this and what has it been like working with them?
I auditioned in Johannesburg for over three months and saw hundreds of actors. Originally I had an open unisex call but after seeing how strong the female actresses were I became more and more convinced I could get away with using an all-female cast in the production.

The actresses had to come in for several call-backs covering everything from improvisation to physical theatre, text and accent work. They were put through barnyard boot camp to get the part…literally.

The demands of the show are huge. It’s incredibly physically and vocally taxing with each actress playing several roles and with two performances on most days of the week. I needed to know they would be able to survive and deliver top-notch performances each time.

I knew from the outset I wanted to work again with the wonderful KZN actress Mpume Mthombeni, who had performed in my play Tin Bucket Drum in New York. Her dictator character in Tin Bucket was terrifying and I knew she had the chops to tackle the lead character of Napoleon.

With Khutjo Bakunzi–Green, who plays the stoic pack horse Boxer, I had seen her in the Gina Shmukler’s The Line at the Hilton fest and knew instantly I wanted to work with her luminous talent.

I met Mandisa Nduna (Squealer) and Zesuliwe Hadebe (Clover), MoMo Matsunyane through the auditions where they blew me away with their versatility, courage and abilities.

I decided, alongside Lali the producer, that we would do an all-female version of the production. In South Africa, women are often cast playing submissive, subservient roles on stage and I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to subvert this sort of lazy and reductive typecasting.

This country has such extraordinarily talented actresses and they are seldom given roles that allow them to demonstrate their range and capabilities. Having women playing men in power also lends to the humour/satire of the piece while allowing us to ask interesting questions around issues such as gender, patriarchy etc.

But beyond all this, the sheer talent of the five actresses we cast, is what convinced me such a casting coup would work. When you watch the production you don’t question the gender of the performers. They slip with such ease and conviction in and out of their various roles that their gender becomes immaterial.

The actresses all worked in collaboration with me on this piece. They participated in research, bringing ideas and influences into the rehearsal room. For Animal Farm one needn’t look very far – just open any South African daily newspaper and one sees the story been played out over and over again.

What is your relationship with the Hilton Arts Festival and are you excited to be on the bill this year?

Over the last decade Hilton has staged every one of my new plays. It started with my kids play Marvellous Mixtures, followed by Two…is Beginning of the End (co-written with Clare Mortimer), Tin Bucket Drum, Tree Boy, Abnormal Loads and now Animal Farm.

I am hugely grateful to have my work represented here in KZN at such a festival and have to thank the marvellous Sue Clarence and Hilton School for their incredible support over the years.

My shows are incredibly complex and technical to stage and as a result are very hard to manage in a festival environment where one has to share a venue with various other performances and productions.

With this is mind I have to acknowledge the ever patient Mike Broderick and Jane Cross and my production manager and lighting-designer, the legendary Tina Le Roux for somehow always managing to make a plan and pull off miracles despite the odds.

Festival-goers don’t see what it takes behind the scenes to get all these plays on over a short space of time. The technical wizards and logistics folks really are the unsung (and unseen) heroes of arts festivals throughout the country.

Where to next?
I have just had a wonderful time directing theatre -legend Sandra Prinsloo in a beautiful Afrikaans play Die Dag is Bros (my first time working in Afrikaans) down in the Cape. I am also immersed in the process of adapting my play Abnormal Loads into a film. The KZN film-fund is supporting this project and I am currently working on several screenplay drafts as we speak.

You’ve teamed up with Daniel Buckland on choreography… have you worked with him before? What do you most appreciate about him with regards to his contribution to your production?
Daniel was another person I have wanted to work with for years. He was away for a long time travelling with Cirque De Soliel around the world and so a collaboration wasn’t possible up until recently when he returned.

I couldn’t have done this show with out him – he really is the best this country has to offer in terms of movement and choreography. He understands character and body as a means of story-telling and he worked with the actresses for months to hone and craft their every gesture.

I had never met him (before Animal Farm) but I did dream one night that we were working on a production together. I emailed him the next day and said: “You don’t know me from a bar of soap but I had a dream that we worked together and I think we should see it as a sign.” Rather than taking out a restraining order, he kindly responded with “Let’s do it.”

I love working collaboratively and it was an honour to have had to the opportunity to play with Daniel in the rehearsal room each day. He has a such a playful child-like energy (no ego) and encourages the whole room to get stuck in and participate and experiment. I believe it’s from this sort of process that the best creative ideas emerge.

Tickets for Animal Farm, which can be seen in the Grindrod Bank Theatre at 9 am on Saturday, September 19, are R195, No under 13s. To book go to http://www.hiltonfestival.coza

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