The Sisters Grimm's subversive take on identity, race and gender falls short despite strong performances
Over the past decade, Declan Greene and Ash Flanders, AKA Sisters Grimm, have time and time again proved themselves as two of Australia’s foremost purveyors of mind- (and gender-) bending queer theatre. Their productions are subversive, absurdist and at times, ramshackle – but while Lilith: The Jungle Girl is arguably their most commercial accessible work to date, it is also their least impactful.
Produced as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON NEXT program, the Sisters’ (who were also behind the superb NEON Festival show The Sovereign Wife) latest work plunges audiences back to 19th century Amsterdam. Here, neuroscientist Charles Penworth (Candy Bowers) and his assistant Helen Travers (Genevieve Giuffre) find themselves with an intriguing new specimen: a wild child found living with lions in the jungles of Borneo. Penworth names this ‘savage’ Lilith (who is played by Flanders), who must try to learn the ways of the ‘civilised’ or face taming by lobotomy.
Introduced naked and shackled within a crate and covered in baby-pink slush (which is at first impressive before the slapstick grows tiresome), Flanders’ performance as Lilith is just one of the ways in which the Sisters subvert ideas on gender, race and sexuality. Casting Candy Bowers, a woman of colour as the bumbling and ignorant Penworth, is another inspired choice.
Unfortunately, lazy directing, unnecessary tangents of dialogue and the misuse of strong performers wear the production down. Flanders’ transition from jungle girl to dainty colonial princess is bold and unnerving, but Lilith’s elongated behind-the-curtains makeover scene is clumsily handled, and her attempt to return to her lion clan is marred by a cringe-inducing (and overreaching) rap scene. Bowers is criminally under-utilised as Penworth; there are some glorious moments of tongue-in-cheek mansplaining, but then other gags are predictable and tedious. Guiffre is excellent as the passive aggressive Travers, but her lovelorn infatuation with her boss provides nothing than a meaningless distraction from what should be a cutting exploration of colonialism and tribalism.
While there are moments of poignancy when the piece hones in on the issues of individuality and conformity, with Lilith pulled in so many different directions, both literally and metaphorically, The Jungle Girl is a play that simply doesn’t know what it wants to be – and somewhat ironically, lacks any clear identity.
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