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BWW Reviews: Astounding EPICENE BUTCHER is a Must-See

The title card for the title story of THE EPICENE BUTCHER
Artwork: Jemma Kahn

It took a full 15 minutes of walking down the streets of Grahamstown for me to regain even the vaguest sense of emotional composure after watching THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS. The final tale in this performance consisting of several stories, all told by Jemma Kahn in the Japanese storytelling style of kamishibai, is entitled "A South African Story" and tells the life story of Nelson Mandela. Things being as they are in South Africa at the moment, with everyone hoping that this noble man will be able to pass away peacefully with what little dignity the African National Congress and many members of the media have left him in the deplorable circus surrounding Mandela's decline, the story and its short preface had a striking emotional impact on me.

In Japan, kamishibai is probably the equivalent of our own indigenous intsomi and izinganekwane storytelling styles in terms of its popularity, although kamishibai differs from those Xhosa and Zulu oral traditions in the respect that it incorporates a strong visual element into the performance. As the story is told, illustrations are shown in a picture box. Sometimes these translate the story into a visual format; at other times, the images offer commentary in addition to supporting the narration of the piece. Of course, what we are seeing here is an interpretation of the form by Kahn and her collaborators: Gwydion Beynon, who scripted the stories and created some of the illustrations; Carlos Amato and Sarah Jonker, who illustrated some of the stories; and director, John Trengrove, who has guided Kahn through a wide range of emotional states and modes of delivery. In the same way that Japan has adapted aspects of other cultures to make them work for the Japanese, Kahn and company have made the tradition of kamishibai their own, but their take on the tradition never feels patronising or demeaning to the original form.

Jemma Kahn tells "A South African Story"

The other six stories that stand alongside "A South African Story" in THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS are all incredibly effective in their own ways. "Ekido and the Carp" is a tongue-in-cheek morality tale, a pastiche of the kinds of cultural fables that one is often told as a child, while "Omorashii" delves into the realm of pornographic fantasy. The story of "The Epicene Butcher" is a moving tale of love and cannibalism and "Cat's Dream" explores the inner workings of the feline mind. Things shift gears with "Fukushima", a story about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster told through images. Finally, "Mario's Lament" offers an alternative and existentialist perspective on the popular Nintendo icon.

Kahn approaches each story uniquely, shifting through a series of accents, physical energies and languages. Dressed in a costume and surrounded by props that can only be described as the best of Japanese kitch, she is completely delightful. In support, as Kahn readies each story for performance, Klara van Wyk (and Sarah Jonker at certain performances) appears as the Chalk Girl, a sardonic waif who writes up witty epigraphs that preface each story on a chalkboard.

Experiencing THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS reminded me of the power of the medium of storytelling and why all theatre fundamentally reaches back to ritualistic storytelling practices in cultures the world over. By turns moving and hysterical, and never less than completely absorbing, THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS is a must-see. You will be reminded why you loved being told stories as a child and wish that there were more opportunities for you to be told stories like this as an adult.

THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS runs until 7 July in the Masonic Hall - Back at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown at the following times: 1 July at 18:30, 2 July at 16:30, 4 July at 10:00, 5 July at 12:30 and 18:30, 6 July at 14:00 and 7 July at 12:00. Tickets can be booked at Computicket. Prints of the images used to tell the stories can be purchased at the EPICENE BUTCHER website.

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