Monday, 5 September 2016
Lilith: The Jungle Girl, Sept 3, 2016 ***
THEATREby Sisters Grimm, produced by MTC NEON NEXT
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until Oct 1, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published online at Herald Sun Arts & later in print. KH
Ash Flanders, photo Jeff Busby
Sisters Grimm can make you laugh, cringe, cheer and whinge all during the one production, and their latest show, Lilith: The Jungle Girl, is no exception.
If you have seen any of the eccentric, queer theatre work by Sisters Grimm, you will guess who plays the titular Lilith, because the exceptional and versatile Ash Flanders always inhabits the female lead with credibility and sensibility.
In 1861, a child found living with lions in the jungles of Borneo (suspend your disbelief!) is transported to colonial Amsterdam to be trained, tamed or lobotomised by neuro-scientist Charles Penworth (Candy Bowers), a, and his adoring assistant, Helen Travers (Genevieve Giuffre).
The Lilith narrative relates to traumatic, fictional or true stories such as Tarzan and the Wild Boy of Aveyron who suffer barbaric abuse by ‘civilised people’ trying to excise the wildness from their helpless subjects and treat them as circus freaks.
This production, directed by Declan Greene, fuses a litany of performance genres such as 1930s British black-and-white films, Victorian melodrama, burlesque and slapstick, social satire and broad parody.
The production is uneven, but Flanders’ performance is a highlight, beginning with his first, poignant and startling appearance as the wild, terrified and naked creature, smeared with flesh-pink mud, chained by the neck and cowering in a wooden crate.
This tenderness and poignancy unfortunately does not reappear until later scenes when Lilith realises that she belongs with neither the lions nor the equally, but differently savage humans.
The absurdity that pervades the entire piece peaks at the point of Flanders’ transformation into a slightly pink-muddied little Dutch girl, costumed in clogs, pointed cap, golden plaits and white, plastic, frou-frou gown decorated outlandishly with tulips and a spinning windmill (Marg Horwell).
Ash Flanders, Genevieve Giuffre photo Jeff Busby
'Lilith’s acquired, toffy British accent and cultivated manners are absurdly at odds with the chaos that surrounds her, including the muddy floor on which she skitters and slides in her clunky clogs.
The stylised, melodramatic acting and heightened emotion are initially entertaining, with Bowers portraying the stuffed shirt, Penworth, as a comical but dangerously dim-witted doctor, a parody of Victorian, experimental medical practitioners.
Giuffre embodies the multiple neuroses of his capable but lovelorn sidekick, Helen, who suffers the indignities of being subservient to an idiot while being his obsessive admirer.
Emma Valente’s cartoon videos are funny, grotesque and attention-grabbing, owing something to the style of Terry Gilliam’s animation.
After a promising, comical start, the chaotic style becomes predictable, while the slippery mud slapstick, funny at first when Lilith struggles to find her feet literally and metaphorically, gets repetitive.
The two-dimensional characterisations of Penworth and Helen are limited and any social commentary and satire gets lost in the shambolic mish-mash of styles and issues.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl certainly has potential to be a clever pastiche but, ultimately, it misses its mark.
By Kate Herbert