Australian queer theatre-makers Sisters Grimm present Lilith: The Jungle Girl, a wild satire of ‘civilised savage’ narratives. Featuring trailblazing actor, activist and MC Candy Bowers (from Fringe 2016 hit Hot Brown Honey), Lilith: The Jungle Girl takes the audience deep into the thorny political jungles of colonialism, individualism and assimilation.
Renowned as one of Australia’s most exciting independent theatre companies, Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) has developed a cult following for their fiercely smart, anarchic comedies that prize liveness and accessibility.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl combines theatre, lo-fi animation and live-art to create a darkly comic allegory – splattered in hot-pink slime. Think The Elephant Man and Ladette to Lady, via Tumblr.com. We spoke to Declan Greene about the play and its upcoming run at Traverse Theatre as part of Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 (4-27 August).
How would you describe Lilith?
I’d say it’s a queer take on fairly fusty old cinematic literature, of the very specific civilised savage genre. It’s like a weird pastiche of texts like The Elephant Man and a classic fish out of water about who is the real savage, nature vs. nurture with the goal of assimilating Lilith into Dutch society. But the telling of the story is refracted and messed up a little to challenge ideas of gender and race in this wild, hyper-colour drag show in a way that encourages and provokes some questions.
It’s interesting how you have chosen so many huge themes, from race and colonialism to gender identity, and they’re set within this hyper-real allegory. Why do you think this was the best modality for what you wanted to talk about?
It’s sort of where we always come from at Sisters Grimm. Our larger project has been stepping through a canon of queer film and literature, all of those camp touchstones, and reinterpreting them through a contemporary political lens. We came to the genre before we came to the questions, and we thought that it would be interesting to look at the civilised savage genre and our starting point was Tarzan in the City.
We tried to read and see everything that were similar within the genre like Pygmalion and Elephant Man. Watched a lot of soft porn and B-movies, like Shandra the Jungle Girl; they all have a very similar narrative, which is usually a girl raised by wild animals who is “rescued” by a young benevolent man who brings her to civilisation but in the end the realisation is that her ways of life are purer and there is a highlight of hypocrisy by the end of the narrative. We wanted to pull apart that narrative and address major borders we face today.
The idea of borders, whether they are personal, political or social, permeates everything now and is explored in the play. What borders do you currently see in 2017, especially from a queer Australian perspective?
I think there’s currently a global conversation about the parameters of identity about categories of race, gender, sexuality, ability, as well as the tribalism that identity politics have led to questions like “who belongs where, who demonstrates the correct kind of behaviours?” Who are the gatekeepers of these strict barriers? These are questions related to online spaces, that don’t necessarily have national borders.
But of course in Australia there are huge questions about refugees and assimilation, as the country has extremely draconian practices with people who are attempting to claim refugee status; so some of the subject matter resonate sin a particular way and I’m really interested to bring the show to Scotland and see what effect Brexit has had on these types of questions. I’m sure Scottish audiences will pull a different set of questions from the play.
What kind of reaction are you expecting from Scottish audiences?
Well this is the first time we’ve taken the show outside Australia, so it’s yet to be determined! What is interesting about the play is that it’s not necessarily fitting a pre-existing ideology or archetype of a traditional play.
Regarding the play’s setting, why does the narrative take place in Amsterdam 1861?
Holland is actually very specific to Australia; it was settled by the Dutch and they shared a name before it became New South Wales before becoming Australia. Also, Candy Bowers, who plays Charles Penworth, has Australian and South African heritage, so for her to play a Dutch coloniser creates an interesting power dynamic having descended from a colonised people.
Time Out described Lilith’s transition into a colonial princess “bold and unnerving.” Why do you think audiences might find it so uncomfortable or jarring?
In the civilised savage genre, there is universally a point where there is a big reveal where the person who is being civilised goes away and is revealed in a more assimilated, sanitary form, generally attractive or sexy for the first time. In our play she is naked and covered in slime for most of the play, and when Lilith is revealed in her full splendour, she’s wearing clogs that slip all over the floor and a giant windmill on her back. It’s a minefield for her to even navigate movement in this ridiculously restricting costume.
What has been your experience of performing in Scotland so far?
We took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe about ten years ago when we were babies; I think it was the second show we’d ever made! Totally convinced we were f*****g amazing and the world was ready for us…and it was not! So I don’t blame Scotland for that, maybe more the quality of our show.
Even though the show had a poor reception last time, we had the best time at the festival. It was so wild, we made a lot of friends and saw amazing art, and it’s like nothing else in the world. I’m wildly excited to have it at the Traverse; I have seen work there before and have a lot of respect for it as a venue.