A live chicken has been slaughtered on the stage of one of Cape Town's most popular theatres.

Disgusted arts lovers stormed out of the Baxter Theatre in Rondebosch after the animal had its throat cut and was left to bleed to death.

Now the SPCA has launched an inquiry and is considering bringing a prosecution against the Baxter and director Brett Bailey.

The chicken was killed on Saturday, minutes before the end of the closing night of the run of iMumbo Jumbo.

Actors, including real-life sangomas, had been using a chicken as part of their performance since the start of the show's three-week run.

On closing night they decided to ritualistically kill her. However, because cast members had become fond of the chicken, named Veronica, a stunt double was bought at a roadside stall in Philippi for about R30.

The double was braaied and eaten later that night at a house in Woodstock.

Several members of the audience, including acclaimed local actor Graham Weir, said they were sickened by the on-stage murder most fowl.

"This happened about five minutes from the end, at which point I and some 20-odd other audience members stood up and left the theatre," said Weir.

"After the show I confronted Mr Bailey in the foyer and asked him what purpose was served by this exercise.

"He said those were real sangomas on stage, performing rituals that are performed in real life. He didn't understand what the fuss was about.

"I think he did it as a cheap publicity stunt to establish himself as the country's most controversial director. It's a pity because his work is highly regarded anyway."

Weir said that theatre was only a representation of real life.

"If the actors are unable to get their message across without acts of violence they should not be on stage. They were able to get their message across to great effect in London where the use of the chicken on stage was not allowed. I think Bailey should be publicly flogged."

Another audience member, Sonja Killian, of Camps Bay, said she had been left traumatised by the incident.

"I didn't like the way they handled the chicken. It was fluttering its wings and struggling. It was this beautiful white chicken. They then dipped its head in some funny-smelling smoke before stretching its neck.

"Then somebody came out with a knife and started cutting the chicken's neck. At first I thought, 'This can't be. It must be an act.' But I realised it was real when I saw the blood on the feathers and a gap in the chicken's neck.

"I was nauseated and appalled. I got up and walked out. I saw other people leaving too. Some of the women were crying. How could they put people through this? That picture will stay in my head. I don't care if it was a ritual, they should not bring it on stage."

But the sangoma who cut the chicken's throat is unrepentant. "We work with spirits and we had to sacrifice something for the ancestors," said Ntombe Tongo.

"We were working on stage and that's where we did it. As a sangoma we normally do that type of thing.

"People maybe walked out because they didn't understand what we were doing.

"I think it was important to do it on stage because it can make people aware of other cultures and lead them to ask questions."

iMumbo Jumbo follows the true-life quest of Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka - diviner, priest, liquor salesman and guru - who travelled to Britain in 1996 to retrieve the skull of his ancestral king and thereby restore peace and dignity to South Africa.

The play examines the world of ritual, spirits, prophets, priestesses, chiefs and queens, while illuminating the tensions between African and Western beliefs and values.

Before coming to Cape Town iMumbo Jumbo had a two-week run at the Barbican Theatre in London, where it played to packed theatres - without a chicken.

Barbara Mathers, general manager of the theatre company, Third World Bunfight, said the chicken slaughter was a "closing ceremony".

"It was done in the context of the finale. We slaughtered a chicken before going to the

Grahamstown Arts Festival and this was the finishing off of it (the play)."

Mathers said Bailey, often described as a cutting-edge director, did not know what the reaction to the sacrifice would be. "For him, it was working in two realms, between theatre spectacle and rituals. For him the slaughter was not senseless because it is a ritual that happens in everyday life," she said.

Baxter manager Mannie Manim said he had had no idea a chicken would be killed during the show.

"I thought Bailey could have at least informed me. I know a number of people left and I have received a complaint."

Shaun Bodington, chief inspector of the SPCA in the Western Cape, said they would have refused permission for such an act had they been asked.

"Anybody wanting to use animals for public exhibitions requires a licence and a permit. The licence is usually issued by a magistrate who would call on us and the police to verify whether we are satisfied with the application," said Bodington.

"We would have vetoed such a request based on the principle that it is unsound that people practice sacrificial slaughter in a public venue.

"But we are investigating the matter because there is a possibility that an offence has been committed."

Bodington said the law made provision for cultural slaughter as long as it was done in private and out of public sight.

Bailey is in Mpumalanga on a BBC script-writing retreat and could not be contacted.