THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, currently playing at the Golden Arrow Studio in the Baxter Theatre Centre, is no fairy tale. A thrilling political satire with a few stylistic nods to RESERVOIR DOGS, THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, the play is an allegory à la ANIMAL FARM, using recent incidents from South African politics as a target. It is a completely absorbing piece of theatre, grabbing one's attention as you enter the space, while the actors inhabit the space with its barbed wire fences and cold, clinical furniture.
At first the plot seems straightforward enough. We are thrown into the allegorical world of this play at the point where two pigs are dead and one remains. The third pig, the weakest and potentially the cleverest, like so many "thirds" in folk tales across the world, remains. While the head of the NPA suspects that the gruesome double murder might be an inside job, the third little pig reveals details of a secret investigation that was being carried out by his brothers, an investigation dealing with a big, bad wolf, who becomes a more and more likely suspect as the play progresses. And that is where things start to get complicated.
Tara Notcutt handles the direction of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS deftly, with the show hitting a brisk stride and relentless pace from the get go. The details of the various intrigues that surround the case fly by quickly and soon assemble themselves into an array of scenarios, all of which are appear rather disturbingly valid. Notcutt, in collaboration with set designer Juanita Ferreira and lighting designer Matt Lansing, have created a world that fascinates and toys with the audience. It feels creepy and dangerous, a minimalistic and yet completely thrilling visual and auditory environment.
The three performers turn in sharp, multiple characterisations as the action of the play progresses. James Cairns is an unstoppable force in whatever role he takes on, from his unfaltering characterisation of the head of the NPA, an intense rooster with his own agenda, or the volatile Sergeant Doberman, who partners one of the other police officers, Vark Jansen. The last-mentioned is played by Albert Pretorius, who also doubles up primarily as an Irish goat, who is assisting the NPA with their investigation. Pretorius offers a great contrast to Cairns, sinking into his slobby personae with assurance. Rob van Vuuren spends most of his time playing the surviving pig brother with a touching sincerity, but also has the chance to raise the roof in two unforgettable cameos: a randy, gym-owning rabbit and a feline stripper named Sparkle. The trio also offers strong ensemble playing and in this minimalist, character-driven piece, their work engages the audience throughout the performance, right up until its shocking twist ending.
American stage and screen actress Shirley Booth famously said that 'the audience is 50 percent of the performance' and this was something that certainly rang true for me while I was watching THE THREE LITTLE PIGS at the Baxter. I had seen the show at the National Arts Festival in 2011 (in a much larger venue, which had its own effect on the dynamics of the piece) and while the playing of the piece was as excellently delivered on both occasions, the experience of it was somewhat different - as of course it should be in the once-only event of a theatrical performance.
I am not suggesting that one group responded to the play more positively than the other and, of course, the audience is made up of individuals who are all caught in a dual process of responding individually as well as collectively. Both audiences were fascinated by the fantastic hybrid animal-human characterisations. Both audiences applauded Loudly when the play came to its shocking conclusion. Both audiences laughed. The difference was that, in Cape Town on the night of this particular performance, the laughter seemed to lack irony. I wondered to what extent the people in the audience were engaging with the politics of the satire as opposed to simply the humour it creates. While I certainly found the Grahamstown audience more engaged with the politics of the play, I had the feeling that people (in both audiences) were watching this play in the same way many of us watch the politics of this country play out: with more apathy than we should have and with an attitude that focuses more on our right to speak out about social injustice than on our responsibility to do something about it. We are our own reality television show.