Camp, trashtastic anachronism is the order of the day in Sisters Grimm’s Lilith: The Jungle Girl. Which is unsurprising on some level if you’ve ever seen a show from Declan Greene and Ash Flanders, or indeed just visited the company’s website. Blending the familiar colonial narrative tropes of taming-the-savage and classying-up-the-dame (TBH, pretty much the same story), and queering roles for good measure, Lilith takes a referential and mischievous look at themes of paternalism, conquest, identity and the erasure thereof.
Set in late nineteenth-century Amsterdam, Charles Penworth, a man haunted by a love tragically and self-inflictingly lost, and Helen Travers receive a shipment from the distant shores of Borneo, containing a prized but dangerous specimen from the wild. Prying open the menacing crate to a great gush of candy-pink mud, we discover the enigma of Lilith, human by nature, lion in nature.
Travers and Penworth struggle through the challenge of civilising the squelching, slip-n-sliding wild woman, from non-verbal handful to dutiful would-be Dutch girl complete with clogs, tulips and windmill. The Pygmalion-ing of Lilith into a suitable candidate for the exam (with the consequence of failure being lobotomy), takes a delightfully meandering romp through whatever the staged version of the makeover montage is from every teen rom-com ever, complete with perfect soundtrack.
Of course, romance and challenge beset our characters, with the inevitable clash of the apparently irreconcilable: the conquering Dutch versus the jungle of Borneo, the tame versus the wild, the heart versus the mind, the pliant versus the rebellious. With twists and turns that take us from the hospital to the zoo to the opera, heroes become villains and become heroes again, as the solidarity of the outsiders trumps those in charge.
The cast features Candy Bowers as blustering doctor Charles Penworth, Genevieve Giuffre as the put-upon Helen (it’s a pretty common name) Travers, and Ash Flanders as the titular Lilith. Opening the show, Bowers charismatically commands the stage, her rollicking, be-sideburned Penworth executed with surgical precision and immaculate comedic timing. Her portrayal of the casually dominant, affably alpha Penworth is a post-millenial Henry Higgins, somehow a protagonist despite being an insufferable asshole.
Giuffre’s Travers is the most understated of the characters as the straight-woman, but absolutely nails the frazzled assistant, pining to take an oblivious man to the opera. Travers journey is played with deftness and delicacy that is a great foil to Penworth’s brashness and Lilith’s fauning femininity, and giving her final victory a satisfying edge.
Flanders as Lilith is a shrieking, frantic, kitsch mess from soiled nudity to soiled Dutch cliché. Lilith sits comfortable in Flanders’ range, allowing him to mischievously caper and slide around the stage, painfully batting eyelashes at Penworth and merrily skipping along the line dividing demure womanhood and trashy, naked miscreant.
Lilith is a tight production, feeling spot-on in terms of timing (75 min, no intermission), despite a slowing and sobering in the final stretch. Declan Greene and his team have delivered a unified aesthetic whole; from script to performance, lighting to sound, video design to set and costume design. The foundation of black (splash-proof and practical) contrasting against jungle colour bursting with vibrancy (and impracticality), conjures the claustrophobia of the hospital setting as well as the suffocating expectation of performing an identity compliant with the norm but inconsistent with our inner natures.
The substance behind the style of Lilith is solid; the themes of power and identity are explored with Sisters Grimm’s trademark insouciance and gleeful irreverence. The humour and brashness of the performances is a sugar-hit that conceals a more sombre examination of the price of opting-out from the norm.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl is playing in the Lawler at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank theatre until October 1st. Tickets and info online.