The Epicene Butcher: Theatrical Zen that defies definition (Jemma Kahn)

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘epicene’ means to ‘have characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex’; much like its meaning, The Epicene Butcher (And Other Stories For Consenting Adults), borne by Jemma Kahn, is very tricky to pin down: it’s theatre, but not.

The show is essentially a genre production with a post-modern, hilarious Japanese twist: a smorgasbord of skits with topics like the subconscious minds of cats, a nuclear disaster, porn, cannibalism, and the Super Mario Brothers’ love problems. And thanks to writer Gwydion Beynon, it’s also storytelling at its finest.

Living up to its Japanese influences, The Epicene Butcher is theatrical Zen, stripped-down and minimalist: it’s basically a narrator (the outrageously talented and hysterical Jemma Kahn) telling stories on stage by means of illustrated picture boards, with each one individually pulled out of a wooden box. It is based on kamishibai, a centuries-old method of Japanese Buddhist storytelling, which Kahn was exposed to during an English teaching stint in the country. There are no elaborate props or lighting – it is theatre in its purest, most entertaining form.

Directed by John Trengove, the multiple award-winning production has proved to be hugely successful – both here and abroad. It came completely out of left field, with its first official performance at the 2012 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It was such a hit among fest crowds that it won a Silver Ovation award. Like a nuclear reactor after a tsunami, its popularity has, quite simply, exploded. Even Annie Lennox has praised the piece, stating that her “mind was blown” after seeing the show. According to Kahn, the The Butcher’s success is largely due to its unique delivery and execution.

“There is something very special built into the medium of kamishibai – every minute there is a reveal as the next picture is exposed,” says Kahn. “The reveal is everything. It keeps audiences in suspense, wanting to see what’s next, wanting more.”

“When I saw kamishibai it was like a lightning bolt – the combination of illustration and performance for me – because I draw and I act,” she adds. “So I came back to South Africa and committed to making something […]. Gwyd and John had the ideas for the overall shape of the piece and Gwyd’s vision took it to mad places. Which was great.”

Jemma Kahn in the Epicene Butcher. Performance still with permission from Brighton Festival, UK, 2013.
Jemma Kahn in the Epicene Butcher. Performance still with permission from Brighton Festival, UK, 2013.

How exactly did the obscure title come about? It came before the story, according to Kahn – and it has nothing to do with the aforementioned etymology of the word.

“I needed to submit an application for the show to be performed in Grahamstown, before the show existed,” she explains. While she was in Japan, a cross-dressing killer by the name of Ichihashi happened to be in the news. “That’s where the title came from,” adds Kahn. “I gave the title to Gwyd, and the idea for the story, to be based on Ichihashi […] [but] Gywd suggested he write something else entirely […]. He wrote the epic poem that is The Epicene Butcher, the title story.”

The title skit is spectacular, sublime and haunting – it’s so impressive that during The Butcher’s run in Australia, some audience members even fainted, and one guy “passed out and wet his pants”. For Kahn, it’s also the most challenging skit to execute.

“The Epicene Butcher is the hardest and it’s my favourite because it’s so fucking dense […]. To paint the story beautifully and to find the nuance in every picture and every word requires focus. I have to pretend like I’ve never seen these ideas before. I have to surprise myself and that’s hard after 300-plus shows.”

During the Joburg run, Kahn will also joined on stage by Glen Biderman Pam and Roberto Pombo, who will share the role of ‘Chalk Boy’. This character has changed actors and sexes a number of times. According to Kahn, the character is Trengove’s “brilliant and perverted invention.” The Chalk Person writes obnoxious and amusing comments on a chalkboard, never says a word, chews gum, and looks upon the audience with bored disdain.

A Chalk Person in action. Performance still with permission from Brighton Festival, UK, 2013.
A Chalk Person in action. Performance still with permission from Brighton Festival, UK, 2013.

After The Butcher’s Cape Town and Johannesburg runs, there is new kamishibai work in the pipeline. “It’s extremely exciting. I can’t say too much at this stage, but [it’s] seven new stories with seven brilliant writers. Each story is based on a Deadly Sin: Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Greed, Wrath, Sloth and Envy. It will premiere at the National Arts Festival [in Grahamstown]”

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