Jemma Kahn in Cellist with Rabies. Photo: Mark Wessels
You can pick a random entry in an encyclopedia, hand it to Jemma Kahn, and she would be able to write a play out of it. Possibly an award-winning one. Dig deep enough into anything and a story is to be found. Actually, I suspect this may be her modus operandi, with the addition of what has become her trademark use of kamishibai – a Japanese street theatre technique of telling stories with pictures, basically.
In Cellist with Rabies, Jemma has pushed the boundaries of this form of illustrated narration to the point where it is barely recognisable. The bulky frames carrying the images have been whittled down to slides very cleverly projected. But this isn’t just projectors on stage. The solid kamishibai foundation makes the multi-media integral to the performance rather than – as is often the case – a redundant addition of spectacle.
Together with director Jaco Bouwer, the demands of the Japanese form have been segued with the conventions of Western theatre to create a wonderfully inventive post-modern performance that is eclectic, eccentric, inventive and, most importantly, compelling.
Compelling is a good word to describe Jemma as performer. If the standards of classic acting were applied, she’d probably just scrape through, which is possibly why we’ve never seen her act in conventional theatre. Her winning quality is intelligence and an ability to make everyone in the audience think she is talking directly to them. Flirting, more like it. There’s a lot of mischief behind that forehead.
Jaco and Jemma are a fantastic creative match. Jaco has experimented with the tensions of technology and stage and regularly transported us into magical realms of metatheatre, while Jemma has always seemed to create work that doesn’t so much occupy the space behind the fourth wall than break it down from our side. In Cellist they polish each other’s rough edges and come close to creating a space that is beyond theatre, yet very much of the theatre.
Their flirtation with the avant-garde has matured into a romance. It seems they individually set new parameters, kept refining them, and have waited for the rest of us to catch up.
Much could go wrong: There’s a big(ish) set by Rocco Pool which seems to have a personality of its own interacting with technology, and a premise that one wrong move could set tumbling into the realm of farce.
The scornfully mistreated Joan (Jemma) is utterly charming as she falls in love with a virus, and David Viviers, who is its personification, is like a hypnotic cobra weaving in his basket – or in this case, petri dish. Together they are darkly hilarious.
Cellist with Rabies amply delivers on its promise of intrigue, it’s just the ending that, dramatic as it is, remains unresolved due to some sense of ambiguity in its prelude.
Directed by Jaco Bouwer, written by Jemma Kahn, performed by Jemma Kahn and David Viviers, set designed by Rocco Pool.