Paper play, not paper dreams

A cut above the rest: The Epicene Butcher, performed by Jemma Kahn, has been lauded for its bold originality. (Supplied)

A cut above the rest: The Epicene Butcher, performed by Jemma Kahn, has been lauded for its bold originality. (Supplied)

Performer Jemma Kahn combines the arts of illustration and storytelling in her humorous solo stage work The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories. The work is based on the Japanese kamishibai form of theatre, the word literally meaning “paper play”.

It is a traditional form of Japanese street theatre in which pictures are slotted into a Punch and Judy-style stage and revealed one at a time with vocal narration.

According to the performer’s note for her appearance at last year’s National Arts Festival, there are fewer than 100 kamishibai performers left in Japan. While living there, Kahn studied kamishibai under ­veteran performer Rokuda Genji.

The show’s title story, The Epicene Butcher, goes back to Japan’s Edo period (1603 to 1868) and tells the gothic tragedy of Japan’s most beautiful woman — and most ­talented butcher. The work is written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by well-known television director and scriptwriter John Trengove.

Tell us about the genesis of the idea.
I learned the form in Japan and then seconded a friend to write, who then seconded a friend of his to direct the show. Our director added a second performer to the mix, Chalk Girl, who knits the stories together. We weren’t sure whether the whole thing was going to work, but it seems like it’s working. The stories are neat little genre gems. And Chalk Girl is a runaway hit.

What’s wrong with South African theatre?
There aren’t enough good writers.

What’s right with South African theatre?
New, small venues that encourage experimental work.

What are you reading?
Old New Yorker magazines. I have an addiction, but, alas, no subscription of my own. My birthday’s coming up in February, by the way.

Where do you like hanging out?
In other people’s flats.

What music are you playing in your car?
The car has no radio, just a knot of wires in a hole in the dashboard. So there’s a portable tape player on the floor and only one tape: Technotronic. It’s my 30th birthday in February. Did I mention that?

When you want to escape Jo’burg, which city do you like to visit?
It’s usually the case that whenever I’m not in Jo’burg, I pine for Jo’burg. But I’m going to Durban this weekend, which I am looking forward to. I want to look at jellyfish.

Which part of Johannesburg do you like?
The Oriental Plaza and the leafy ’burbs; enclaves of Booysens and Amalgam where you can find wholesale suppliers of weird shit. I really love Jo’burg.

What is your favourite food?
Carbs. Japanese or Italian style.

What is the last film that you watched that blew you away?
Two films in the past two days. Mission: Impossible 4 and Lawrence of Arabia. Brad Bird directed M:I-4, so it’s deranged. And Lawrence of Arabia is just too gorgeous and suspenseful, to boot.

Wine or beer?
Neither, really. My boyfriend drinks beer and I whine at him.

Now to a cheesy question: cheese or chocolate?'
Cheese at the beginning and chocolate at the end. Perhaps some cheese by itself a bit later.

Do you watch TV and what is your favourite show?
Like many people, I scrounge around on other people’s hard drives and then overdose on whatever I find. When is Girls series two going to be ready to watch back to back, through the night?

The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories is showing at the Catalina Theatre, Wilson’s Wharf, Durban Harbour, as part of the Musho! festival, on January 18 at 6pm. The show moves to Cape Town’s Alexander Upstairs theatre at 76 Strand Street from February 14 to 24

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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