Lilith: The Jungle Girl

This acclaimed show from award-winning Australian theatre company Sisters Grimm clearly aims to put the “lion” back in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, through a startlingly amusing, messy and self-aware tale of a wild girl—raised, from the age of four, within a leonine pride in the heart of Borneo—who is captured by explorers and brought to 19th century Holland where one of the leading neuroscientists of the day attempts to “civilise” her.

This is a show which touches on many important subjects

Sisters Grimm come to this story from a clearly queer angle, most obviously by having patriarchal self-centred Victorian gentleman scientist Charles Penworth played by a woman of colour—the delightful Candy Bowers—while the wild female creature from the jungle is actually the show’s co-creator, Ash Flanders—his nakedness ensuring there’s no audience confusion when it comes to the performer’s biological gender. Genevieve Guiffre, as Penworth’s “assistant” Helen Travers, meantime, is an almost non-cis personification of unrequited love, although she’s importantly up to speed with the latest campaigns by the suffragettes. A love triangle waiting to happen.

For, as Travers points out to the supposedly “civilised” Lilith, awaiting the etiquette test that will award her Dutch citizenship (and therefore official human status), “We humans are a little competitive too, where mates are concerned.” Thanks to Travers’ goading, Lilith momentarily “regresses” back to her violent, animal self, but she finds no respite in either 19th century Dutch civilisation or the lion enclosure in Amsterdam Zoo—the lions there, born in captivity, know nothing of the jungle she grew up in, yet are still more lion than she’ll ever be. Lilith’s caught between cultures, and for a time lost.

Under co-creator Declan Greene’s tight direction, the story is told quickly and clearly, with a script full of self-aware laughs about the artificiality of the production—though never at the expense of the characters themselves. Under designer Marg Horwell, everything in Amsterdam is either black like cracked bakelite or hospital white, while Lilith’s wildness is signified by bright pink mud that increasingly leaves the floor slippy underfoot. No wonder Bowers and Giuffre wear waterproofs and wellington boots; the show’s risk assessment must’ve been an interesting read. Yet there’s little doubt this approach to the story just feels right.

Emma Valente’s startling animations and Pete Goodwin’s sound design contribute much to the production, flickering between humour and horror. This is a show which touches on many important subjects—cultural arrogance, the emancipation of women, a fear of immigration and a diluting of cultural identity—but does so with a deceptively light touch and a willingness to show how even a night at the opera can bring the least likely of people together. Brilliant stuff.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

When a wild girl is captured in the rainforests of Borneo, all of Holland is set abuzz. The year is 1861, and pioneering neuroscientist Charles Penworth is called upon to raise the child from the pit of her animal nature. But who, indeed, is the real savage? An explosively messy mash-up of satire, slime and queer rage, Sisters Grimm take you deep into a thorny political jungle – somewhere between The Elephant Man and Ladette to Lady. Winner: Best New Writing, Best Ensemble and Best Set and Costume Design at Australia’s Green Room Awards.