Jemma Khan in In bocca al lupo. Photographer: Unkown, sourced from www.nationalartsfestival.co.za
It was only when Jemma Kahn* pulled out her first board that I realised what I had been looking at for the last four minutes. A bloody great design: Two panels, divided in half along the horizontal, one set slightly behind the other to enable her to pull any of the resultant four kamishibai boards out from the same side. The boards facing us prior to Kahn gracing us with her effervescent presence a slate grey against the blond frame.
There was nothing else. Very Zen. Very evocative of our preconceived ideas of Japanese décor: minimal.
Gone are the feather boas, spangly underwear, primary colours and tit tassles of her first two kamishibai installments. Gone is the gum chewing, sassy chalk girl of the Epicene Butcher. Gone is the titillation (barring some scenes in 2D). Gone is Roberto Pombo and whatever character he inhabited in the scarringly brazen ‘Croissants‘. She’s swept it clean like a Buddhist monk’s cell. It’s just Jemma now. Jemma and her story of how this successful little crowd puller came to be.
What’s new is that she runs four panels at once. A neat trick that allows for the occasional large landscape, a diorama almost except the definition won’t fit the vocabulary. The only glitz is the glitter glued on the opening scene, her gently modulated text to which provides an immediate signal to this being an autobiography.
What In bocca al lupo has not lost is the grit, in both senses of the word. Lonely and sordid. Hilarious and sad. Abstract and in-your-face. Lateral (she pivots at the oddest of places) but ultimately linear, this is a single story. Hers, yet written with Tertius Kapp.
It’s candid, it’s engrossing, it has a fucken weird ending. I’m not sure about that ending and even though she’s dressing but not undressing, she’s still a tease. How can you evoke the meeting with the Japanese ambassador and then not culminate it somehow? At least give us a clue. Unless the fantastic bee-thing outfit was the clue. Yeah, it probably was. Just Jem leading us on, again, hiding chocolates under the bushes in an Easter egg hunt of her own devising. Delicious but tainting the palate with anxiety that there’s one you didn’t find and it’s a bloody waste it going to the ants and worms.
She’s a hussy this one, getting a different director with each installment of the trilogy. This time it was Jane Taylor. Professor Jane Taylor. A scholar who wrote and directed the sublime In Cardenio staged in the Anatomy Theatre on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus. She’s done a bit of a My Fair Lady on Kahn in this last turn. For one thing she’s made her keep her clothes on. But less literally, the pace is more genteel, more measured. Well measured. So it was a disappointment when Jemma dropped character twice. Once due to a mix up in the visuals and once when someone’s phone inexplicably announced it was in flight mode. Pity, that.
It’s also an interesting choice, this tying off the acclaimed series by going back to its origin. Not particularly original, a safe bet, but elegant nonetheless, with just enough fuckery to satisfy our lust.
In bocca al lupo is on a the Alexander Theatre in Cape Town until 11 Feb. You’ll be sad if you don’t get to see it.
*In the original post, Jemma Kahn’s surname was incorrectly spelled as Khan. Oh dear! In mitigation, the spelling of kamishibai was thrice checked.