Let me start with saying I’m not a big fan of theatre. The stories in the plays I’ve seen are usually archaic and boring, so I only tend to go when a specific show is very highly recommended. A friend of mine told me I absolutely had to go see “The Epicene Butcher and other stories for consenting adults”, and despite my initial reservations, I’m glad I did.
The Epicene Butcher uses the Japanese form of story telling known as kamishibai, which means paper drama. Kamishibai involves a simple box with a hole in the front. Drawings are placed into the box and the gaito kamishibaiya, or kamishibai storyteller, narrates the story and pulls out each drawing as the story unfolds. Depending on the story, a page might be pulled out completely or pages might be pulled out slowly, stopping in certain places in order to help build up tension. This box functions much like a television in it’s design in that the box frames the image, and the hole functions as the “screen” in which the audience watches the images.
Jemma Khan, the narrator of The Epicene Butcher, discovered kamishibai while teaching English in Japan. She was introduced to Rokuda Genji, who saw her interest in kamishibai and decided to take her under his wing. They later performed kamishibai together in Hiroshima. Jemma then came up with the idea for The Epicene Butcher, and with the help of Gwydion Beynon, a well established television writer, and John Trengove, a director whose career has covered film, theatre, and television, The Epicene Butcher came to life. The show is approximately one hour long, and includes stories from traditional Japanese kamishibai, as well as some original stories that vary in tone and themes.
The show itself involves a kamishibai box, and a few extras that aren’t found in traditional kamishibai. The character of “Chalk Girl” was created specifically for The Epicene Butcher, and she exists to help ease the transition between the varied themes covered by each story. A very basic lighting setup (seriously, it’s a bunch of bedroom and office lamps) is also used to light the show, as opposed to a more professional (and undoubtedly more expensive) set of lights. Rather than being a downside, this unconventional way of lighting the stage helps add character to the set.
So what about the show itself?
I absolutely loved it! It’s incredibly funny and Jemma’s narration and performance is fantastic! The stories themselves are definitely quite offbeat (Jemma commented about how she’d had three walkouts), and while some may find the themes in The Epicene Butcher a bit too much, I can confidently say this was part of the show’s appeal for me. One of the stories is about a young man fantasizing about meeting his dream girl, who exists only in the pages of a hentai (porn) comic. Another is about a set of explorers who discover an island of strange creatures, one of which is yellow, has bright rosy cheeks and possesses strange electrical powers. The story of The Epicene Butcher, after which the show is named, is surprisingly dark but romantic (think Roald Dahl’s adult stories) at the same time. If you’re conservative or incredibly mainstream, you probably want to make sure you get a seat close to the exit. For everyone else you may need to bring along a change of underwear in case you piss yourself with laughter!
Unfortunately the current show has ended, but I managed to attend a talk about the show and asked Jemma whether The Epicene Butcher will be returning to Cape Town. She confirmed that they will be running it again later this year, so for those of you who missed it the first time, or if you want to check it out a second time, your chance will come later in the year.
You can get a small taste of The Epicene Butcher in the video below: