Animal farm received more than audience applause. It got statement applause.
The packed Rhodes Theatre rose up with a collective shout of approval as the all-women cast took their final bow.
Author George Orwell was a fierce critic of the abuse and corruption of popular revolutions by vicious, greedy, lying tyrants, and fought alongside a movement of anarchists who resisted the rise of facism in Spain more than 70 years ago.
His dark, little allegorical novel described how animals on Manor Farm rose up against an unjust whip-yielding farmer and drove him away.
It is what happened to the liberation movement after the revolution which obsessed Orwell and his portrayal of the ascendancy of the pigs proved to be an apt and enduring critique of what happens to national movements.
Neil Coppen’s adaptation, which depicts the mass democratic rise of the ANC and its descent of the ruling clique into corruption and violence under an umbrella of propaganda and outright lies, seemed to hit a raw nerve in the crowd.
Jokes about Nkandla’s fire pool drew a huge laugh, but the loudest laugh came when the tyrant pig, Napoleon, fluffs the numbers when telling the animals about the money they have made from trading with the hated two-legged farmers nearby.
There is genius at work as the cast build the story, from the heroic battles to topple the farmer, and then traces the slow but inexorable rise of the pigs.
Journalists who battle every day to get answers from government spokespeople will take pleasure in Coppen’s handling of the relationship between Napoleon and Squealer, his spin doctor.
The recreation of events, the lies and propaganda to explain away how the pigs undermine and betray every point in their democratic charter until the full circle of tyranny is reached, is thoroughly enjoyable.
This was an audience who instantly recognised these elements in their own lives and their response drove the cast on to deliver magnificent performances.
Every encroachment of rights, every new bit of evidence of corruption is explained away by Squealer.
But memory is a powerful weapon in the fight to alert the working masses of how original promise is being whittled away by propaganda and political cunning.
Two old goats do not hold back as they hold the pigs to account.
It is Boxer, the faithful farm horse, who wrenches at the heart strings, never failing in his loyalty to the leaders, working harder and harder for the revolution.
His death is one of the most powerful metaphors of a working class betrayed.
We want to call out to him to remove his blinkers, to listen to the old goats. But he trudges on as the loads of goods destined for corruption-riddled trade, get heavier and heavier.
We are chilled to the bone at the mocking response of the pigs to Boxer’s end.
The final scene of ultimate gorging on fruits of the struggle is unforgettable.
The timing of the work is inescapable; in an election year this is a story which needs to reach the wider public.
This was thoroughly enjoyable theatre which broke through the wall of disbelief, while simultaneously taking us on an imaginative, vibrant journey.
We may feel that we have lost ground in our battle for democracy and human rights in SA, but work like this has an underlying message that we must not give up.
Orwell’s Animal Farm does not allow us much insight in the next step – the post-apartheid, post-liberation effort – but it definitely reincarnates that desire and passion to be liberated from tyrants, even if they are our old comrades. — firstname.lastname@example.org