Lilith: The Jungle Girl by Australian theatremakers Sisters Grimm is a neo-Victorian romp of a play, a queer-feminist satire of nationalism and colonialism. Imagine a mashup of the melodrama of The 39 Steps, the story of Pygmalion, and the politics of Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Venus.
Holland, 1861. Neuroscientists Charles Penworth (Candy Bowers) and Helen Travers (Genevieve Giuffre) are pioneering lobotomy techniques – although Travers, who nurtures a crush on the hilariously unperceptive Penworth, thinks the doctor might be a little overzealous with the scalpel. A crate arrives delivering a wild girl (Ash Flanders), who has been raised by lions in the rainforests of Borneo. Lobotomise or civilise? Travers persuades Penworth to try to civilise the girl, whom he names Lilith after Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore. They teach Lilith to speak their language (English) and prepare her to take a test to prove she’s human. Things don’t quite go to plan.
Yet this plot summary risks misrepresenting the production. It is so much larger than life and packed with meandering tangents of comedy, which makes Lilith difficult to describe. For instance, Candy Bowers also plays a lion in the zoo, who does a rap explaining how much he has been oppressed as a lion and why he will not let Lilith join the pride in the enclosure. This was the one false note for me in the comedy, as it skirted close to making fun of genuine oppression (not of lions, but indigenous people and their descendants).
Generally though, the humour was wonderfully offbeat and political. Casting the superb Candy Bowers of Hot Brown Honey as Charles Penworth is an inspired choice. As well as impeccable comic timing, her performance and an awareness of her work outside the play brings an ironically subversive bite to the delivery of Penworth’s chauvinistic and misogynistic sentiments. Having Ash Flanders play Lilith further queers the play. For most of the performance, he is completely naked, his body covered in viscous pink goo. When they are civilising Lilith, Penworth and Travers don white overalls and wellington boots, slipping around the plastic-sheeted stage in trails of pink slime. It’s a metaphor for something, although I’m not sure what. Displaying Ash Flanders’ white, male body as a colonial object circumvents the ethical problem of whether postcolonial theatre might re-enact the colonial gaze by representing it. Yet substituting his body for the female body of colour that the story invokes also suggests absence, the bodies for whom the white male body is standing in, which were and would have been objectified and humiliated under colonialism.
At the peak of Lilith’s ‘civilisation’, she is costumed in bonnet and plaits, a dress with a windmill sticking out of the back like angel wings, oversized clogs, and a cloak of Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’, in a parody of nationalism. To Penworth, she is a paradigm of Dutch womanly perfection. In a satisfying twist, Travers and Lilith unite in sisterly solidarity and call Penworth out on his bullshit.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl is on at Traverse Theatre until 27th August 2017. Click here for more details.