Jemma Kahn in Cellist with Rabies. Picture: Mark Wessels
Jemma Kahn in Cellist with Rabies. Picture: Mark Wessels

#NAF2019: Imagine being in love with a virus...

By Orielle Berry Time of article published Jul 3, 2019

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The title is enough to make you ponder ... imagine being in love with a virus...

Jemma Kahn's latest work done in collaboration with Jaco Bouwer who directs makes its debut appropriately at the National Arts Festival. Both Bouwer and Kahn are previous winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. 

Both push boundaries and what a truly unusual and innovative yet clever concept; to create a performance with this subject. It takes a very talented team to pull it off and undoubtedly it works, judging by the strongly positive audience response on the day I saw it.  

It's indeed one of those charming stories although you may well ask how can you be in love with an entity that exists under a microscope.

Richly textured, informative, amusing and whimsical although contemplative and sad at the same time, it opens with virologist Joan Remy demonstrating she's on the brink of making a breakthrough in rabies research. 

If successful, it will create a new era in this line of medical work since that of trailblazer Louis Pasteur.

But ... she's taken by surprise when the rabies virus that she's examining in her petri dish (the cell culture dish that biologists use to examine bacteria)  begins communicating with her. 

As the conversation gets more personal she starts to fall for the said virus. We're told only one person is known to have survived full-blown rabies, by undergoing a radical form of treatment called The Milwaukee Protocol which treats the virus. 

But Remy amply vocalises that she's seriously cynical of this type of treatment in which the patient was placed in a drug-induced coma and given an antiviral cocktail to get rid of this life-threatening illness.  

And that is essentially the crux of the play - how either she can kill the virus or the virus can kill her .. relationships as we all know, are co-dependent and for each to survive, there's a delicate balance of accommodating the other.

Jemma Kahn and David Viviers inn Cellist with Rabies. Picture: Mark Wessels

Both Kahn and co-actor David Viviers shine in this weird and wonderful production. We learn how bacteria enter the body, how easy it is to pick up and how easy it is to die but also, how in the swipe of a hand, a thriving sample on the petri dish can be eliminated. Or not,  if it is thriving in your body... So who has the upper hand?

Said amoeba and virologist sweet-talk the hell out of each other and virtually make love on the petri dish if you can believe that. But in line with Kahn's previous work, it shows her fascination with erotic nihilism. 

Bouwer and Kahn collaborate for the first time in this work and one hopes it's the start of a beautiful relationship; combined with Viviers fine acting it makes for a fascinating session of viewing.

Cellist With Rabies was commissioned this year by the National Arts Festival. It also comes to the Alexander Bar in Cape Town on August 6 until August 17. Highly recommended.


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