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Lilith: The Jungle Girl review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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Deep in the jungles of Borneo in 1861, Dutch explorers stumble across a wild young girl (Ash Flanders) living amongst a tribe of lions. She’s packed up into a box, along with a pile of the bright pink mud native to her homeland, and shipped back to Holland, where she comes under the care (or otherwise) of a neuroscientist, Charles Penworth (Candy Bowers), and his devoted assistant Helen (Genevieve Giuffre).

Charles sets about civilising the young girl, calling her Lilith, and dressing her in, um, traditional Dutch gear, complete with wooden clogs, long blonde braids, and a wearable, fully-functioning windmill. But Lilith doesn’t entirely transform into the happy, well-mannered young Dutch woman Charles wanted her to be, and their relationship finds itself under serious strain.

Queer theatre duo Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) have worked with classic literary, theatrical, and cinematic genres extensively over the last few years, subverting audience expectations and finding new resonances. While taking the piss out of their theatricalities, idiosyncrasies and just plain idiocies (there’s a very funny moment involving a letter which necessarily must be read out loud, for the audience’s sake) they also celebrate these genres and tropes, and remind us that, even with those flaws, they have something significant to tell us.

Into the mix, they meld the trashiest of contemporary pop culture (including one hit wonder Sixpence None the Richer’s gorgeous Kiss Me) and the highest of art, pulling together sprawling, but tightly wrought camp theatre. Sisters Grimm shows are always concerned with identity, but in this wild romp they take a slightly different path.

The very act of casting Candy Bowers, a woman of South African descent, as a white man from a colonising force, is politically powerful and intriguing. And she’s absolutely brilliant in as Penworth, with an impossibly plummy accent and manner belying a dangerous brutality.

Ash Flanders writhes about in bright pink mud with wild abandon (and nude enough to remind us that he is a man, playing a woman) and captures all the fear and frustration of a woman flung into an unknown world and forced to abandon her home.

Genevieve Giuffre is one of the best character actors on Australian stages and it’s baffling to me that she doesn’t get cast in more main stage productions. Here, she plays a woman who finally cracks after years of neglect.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl has echoes of Frankenstein, and even George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion — a man crafts a new woman and forces his own, “higher” culture upon her, but she eventually finds herself lost and caught between two worlds.

Greene’s direction is impressively knowing and perfectly paced, aided by Marg Horwell’s smart set design, featuring sheets of black plastic and a stark white curtain allowing for fast transitions. Emma Valente’s lo-fi animations and The Sweats’ eclectic, playful sound design and compositions conjure up funny and fractured images of 19th century Holland and Borneo.

It might seem odd that Flanders and Greene, two white theatre-makers, have made a work so explicitly about race, but it’s more broadly about how identity and culture intersect, and cultural imperialism in all its forms. And as two gay men whose work is part of the queer culture inevitably pushed aside, or even appropriated by the mainstream, they understand a thing or two about what it is to have your culture devalued or badged as inferior.

The NEON independent theatre initiative at MTC has been an intriguing and useful exercise in promoting and supporting independent artists, but it’s a shame that Lilith isn’t part of the main stage 2016 season. This kind of bold and engaged theatre-making should be at the centre of what our theatre is, not on the fringe.

It’s a challenging piece, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny and constantly engaging. Engaging enough to impress any audience not too squeamish, I’d wager.

Who knew a play about identity, cultural imperialism and colonialism could be so entertaining?

This is the best theatre I’ve seen all year and unlike anything else on an Australian main stage in 2016.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl is at the Southbank Theatre until October 1.

Featured image by Jeff Busby

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