By BRUCE DENNILL
Other than about ten seconds of non-activated microphone in which what Albert Pretorius said into the device was easily audible anyway, there was nothing wrong with the performance of Three Little Pigs on Saturday 26 July in the Wits Theatre (as part of the 969 Festival).
That’s a hell of a thing to say about a piece that takes on matters like graft, corruption and South African politics, splices them all into a murder mystery and then dresses that up as a fairytale rinsed in an allegorical mulch of satire, black humour and physical theatre. In which three actors play about a dozen animal (no typo) characters between them.
That sounds like an incredibly singular experience. And it is: something remarkably original that also draws on the Brothers Grimm, George Orwell, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Slabolepszy and Carte Blanche in uneven measure.
The writing, by stars Pretorius, James Cairns, Rob Van Vuuren and director Tara Louise Notcutt (she describes her role as “more wrangler than director”) is sublime: carefully researched, particular about its rhythms and detailed to a degree that suggests that company requires – rather than expects – its audience to be up to speed with the subject matter. Dumbing down is not an option.
It also requires the cast to be perpetually on their toes. Everyone on stage is always portraying an anthropomorphised animal (the central trio comprise a pig, a goat and a chicken), and the minor elements that remind the audience of those identities require precise attention. So the bleating of a goat, for instance – to signify the bipedal character’s laughter – has to sound real, fit the context in which it is placed and convey a certain tone, all in addition to simply surprising the listeners and making them laugh.
Then there is the physical theatre – obvious occasionally; extraordinarily subtle in other places – that sees Van Vuuren as a violent, drugged-up hyena transform into a slight, manipulative rat; Cairns change from a cocksure, er, cock into a dog with a single-track focus and Pretorius from an incisive goat into a supercilious (read: pig-headed) vark.
There are scores of marks to hit. Pretorius, Cairns and Van Vuuren hit them all. They do more work than they strictly need to because the result is superior to what it otherwise would have been. And the audience respond, erupting spontaneously into applause mid-scene from time to time because they’re instinctively aware that what just transpired onstage was, plainly put, staggeringly good. The ending is the worst part of the show only because it means the experience is coming to an end…
Rob Van Vuuren is worth singling out, but only because doubts about his acting skills are valid, if you haven’t seen him in this context before. Sure, he’s a wonderful comedian; an adroit jester and a hugely talented writer and director. But in Three Little Pigs, he’s starring alongside two of South Africa’s best, most versatile stage actors. Pretorius made Miskien a celebration of pathos and melancholic beauty; Cairns created the theatre poetry that was Sie Weiss Alles. Van Vuuren should struggle; meeting that standard should be near-impossible. Apparently not.
As a colleague or acquaintance, greeting Notcutt and her cast in the Wits Theatre foyer after the show feels odd. These artists are on a par with the best in the world, and most audiences have – sadly – been schooled to believe that if there are not limousines, red carpets and velvet ropes involved, they’re somehow not getting their money’s worth.
Three Little Pigs sets the bar now. Its debut Johannesburg run is over, but the response it has evoked will ensure a return as soon as the schedules of the actors and director allow. When that happens, get in quickly; the box office is going to be a feeding frenzy.
* It’s okay, that’s not bad language – this is a play with animals in it, remember? I meant oxen.