A Play of Artists by Jemma Kahn and her own Band of Creatives as 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre


Jemma Kahn Poster


It’s time for the 2018 Standard Bank National Arts Festival from today until July 8. DIANE DE BEER spoke to Jemma Kahn, the innovative theatre maker and Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre about her production The Borrow Pit which performs at the Festival today, tomorrow and Saturday (June 28 to 30) and at The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Joburg on July 7:


“Unmitigated joy,” is how Jemma Kahn, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, describes her rehearsal process for her National Festival production The Borrow Pit.

And even though, as we know, the life of the artist is a tough and insecure one, she is delighted that in this process, she gets to look into the eyes of another artist. “It’s been a profound working experience,” is how she describes the rehearsal period which has been such a luxury – courtesy of the Young Artist award which is amongst others a monetary one – and for Kahn, there was no question, she has spent that on the people helping her produce this work.

Jemma Kahn

She describes the piece thus: “The place is London, the time 1966. Artist Francis Bacon meets George Dyer and they start a relationship. Bacon was already a prolific painter and public figure and Dyer, several years Bacon’s junior, was a good-looking criminal who had never been in a gay relationship before. Bacon liked to drink heavily, gamble, get into fights and he liked his lovers to rough him up.

“Bacon was a masochist but unfortunately George was not a sadist. So George Dyer’s tender love (inexplicable and frightening to himself) was intolerable to Bacon. He didn’t want to be cuddled and loved and tea and eggy in the bed. Their relationship was a tumultuous one, fuelled by lots of booze on both sides. A tragic quote: “Being the artist’s ‘friend’ – George played down the sexual connection – provided him with enough money to keep himself and a variety of hangers-on more or less permanently drunk”.

“As Bacon distanced himself, George Dyer, heartbroken, went to seek counsel of Bacon’s friend Lucian Freud. Freud was grandson of Sigmund, painter. Freud, like Bacon was that kind of bohemian posh that means he lived in rambling squalor and had weird relationships with his female children. Bacon and Freud were painter terribles, painting figuratively throughout the 20th century despite portraiture being unfashionable.

Wilhelm van der Walt plays George Dyer

“Freud painted Dyer’s portrait. To sit for a portrait by Freud was a lengthy commitment of months, even years sometimes.  They must have spoken about Bacon a lot, or perhaps not at all since Freud was a famously mercurial. ‘George got very depressed’, says Freud, ‘he came and stayed with me in Paddington for a while, and I painted him. In the end of course, he killed himself.’ George Dyer died of an overdose in a Paris hotel room in 1971. Two days later a large retrospective of Bacon’s work opened in at La Grande Palais, Paris – many of the paintings on the show were of Dyer.

“Is art more important than people? Are the paintings of Dyer by Freud and Bacon more valuable than he was himself?”

Tony Miyambo plays Francis Bacon

Bacon is somebody who has been floating around her head for a number of years, has even featured in a short film she produced recently and while there is something about actors and celebrities, artists, to her mind, will trump that every time. Her description gives some impetus to the inner working of the play, and what a group of artists of the stature she has gathered, can do with the rich world they have been tasked with.

Some background: Shortly after graduating Kahn spent two years in Japan which had a strong impact on the content and form of her work. Her primary theatre focus is Japanese kamishibai or ‘paper theatre’, a 12th century highly visual storytelling medium. She has been creating and performing kamishibai since 2009 and the interesting aspect has been the way she has developed this particular form of theatre to tell her stories – each production evolving into something that opens yet another avenue for her to explore. And she makes grand leaps.

David Viviers plays Lucien Freud

Collaboration has always been part of her creative process and this time the funds allowed her to stretch that as far as she possibly could. “They had to be paid well,” she stresses. It started with the writing, yet she simply couldn’t afford to bring on a fulltime writer so instead she invited writer/director/film composer Marco Dutra to collaborate on the writing. What it did was to open up the thought processes and filter all those layers while exploring the script. On Skype they teased the thing until it was ready to stand on its own, is how she describes it.

On the production side she further surrounded herself with Jacob van Schalkwyk, artist/writer/filmmaker, as dramaturge and the man who has to bear witness to everything, especially because she was both playing and directing; her childhood friend Rebecca Haysom, an illustrator/artist/curator who helped her with the paintings; and box designer/artist/framer Wessel Snyman who made her the most insanely perfect boxes, which is how kamishibai reveals itself.

On the acting side, Tony Miyambo plays Francis Bacon, “simply because that’s who he is,” David Viviers is Lucien Freud and Wilhelm van der Walt is George Dyer. “They’re all just so gentle and smart,” she says and again waxes lyrical about the process and being allowed to watch how other actors work at revealing their characters. “They arrived in the room at different intervals,” she explains introducing her own role as “everyone else and then some”.

For Kahn, it has been all about the process and when speaking to her just before the company left for Grahamstown, she had earlier found herself in bed reading a book – quite relaxed. But that has been the result of a rigorous planning process and the knowledge of what the rehearsal process has meant to her.

When she received her award, she was told by a wise soul that she could opt for something that would be a commercial success or she could take this opportunity to do exactly what she has always wanted and be damned. No guesses there!

Even if The Borrow Pit appears and disappears swiftly, “sinks without a trace”, Jemma Kahn will have the memory of the artists and the process – worth its weight in gold.

Those of us following her career though have none of those rewards. We need to see it!

*Sadly for those wishing to see, all tickets sold out for Joburg shows. But yea for the arts and artists!!