How can you mend a broken heart? Fall in love with a virus. Cellist with Rabies, written by Jemma Kahn and directed by Jaco Bouwer, follows someone who does just that, says OLEANDER CAIRNS:

Cellist With Rabies: Jemma Kahn review

The show was advertised as “a story of disease, failure and breakfast” and this comical, anticlimactic style is typical of Kahn’s writing and a good introduction to the broader work.

The plot revolves around Joan Remy (played by Jemma Kahn), a virologist working on rabies. Recently jilted by her famous boyfriend (and boss) after taking apart his weak research, Remy’s funding is withdrawn and she finds herself desperate and alone in her lab, at least, in theory. In her darkest hour, the rabies virus over which she has so long been poring, speaks.

The blurb for the show notes Kahn’s interest in “erotic nihilism”, and Cellist with Rabies doesn’t disappoint. She manages to generate credible sexual tension between her character and Rabies (with a little help from Al Green), which is a theatrical feat in itself. Moreover, Kahn’s genius for unexpected language punctuates the production with a series of syntactical gems (including the question, “What does beautiful skin feel like?” and the answer, “Like an apricot that has been microwaved for 10 seconds”).

Kahn’s razor-sharp delivery is also partly responsible for the efficacy of her script. David Viviers, who played Rabies incarnate, was similarly excellent. His performance was impish and nimble (and underpinned by an unnerving hunger for all things vulpine). The scope of the discussions between this unlikely pair was wide, ranging from the relative merits of different rabies hosts to the value of “art and stuff”.

Collaboration not to be missed

Separately, both Kahn and Bouwer have won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre (for The Borrow Pit and #Untitled). Their collaboration is not to be missed. Kahn has delighted audiences with her previous work including The Epicene Butcher, We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants and In bocca al lupo, all of which use a storytelling technique informed by the Japanese kamishibai. Cellist with Rabies continues this trend, though less obviously, using microscope slides and projected film stills, rather than painted boards.

The show provides a brilliant new approach to the cliché that love makes fools of us all. It addresses romantic love’s ability both to expand and to deflate us, and the profusion of longing looks between Kahn and Viviers doesn’t offset the sinister aspects of the plot. The ending was abrupt and left me feeling like a child at bedtime, wailing for just one more chapter. Cellist with Rabies shows at the Alexander Bar in Cape Town in August 2019 and I would highly recommend this infectious work to anyone with an appreciation of dialogue and a sense of humour.

 What: Cellist with Rabies

Where and when: Alexander Bar, Cape Town from 6 to 17 August 2019

Tickets: Here