Edinburgh review: Lilith: Jungle Girl (Traverse Theatre)
Sisters Grimm's devised piece takes aim at new cultural divisions in the Traverse's festival line up
The wooden crate onstage shakes. In it, supposedly, is a truly terrifying creature; a captive wild-thing from the jungles of Borneo, raised by lions and capable of ripping humans apart. When it opens, however, a naked figure covered in wet pink paint cowers in chains on the floor. "We shall call her Lilith," declare the two scientists in charge, imposing an identity from the off.
At first glance, Lilith looks like a straight-up Pygmalion spoof. Rather than a lippy cockney flower girl however, the two doctors have an indigenous human being to train for civil Dutch society in the late 19th century. They stick ‘her' in a dress, complete with clogs in national colours and a rotating windmill neckbrace – an attempt at all-out assimilation. The aim is to get Lilith to "pass" – as a woman perhaps, or maybe as a Dutch citizen.
Instead of old class lines, then, Sisters Grimm's devised piece takes aim at new cultural divisions. The style is standard Sherlocky schlock – the sort of stock Victorian comedy that's ten a penny-farthing on the Fringe: uppercrust RP, mutton chops and pipe-smoking as standard. But canny genderblind casting complicates things. Hot Brown Honey's Candy Bowers plays the priggish lead scientist Charles Penworth, and sometime drag artist Ash Flanders, his strawberry pink penis on full display, is Lilith. Come the end, the show's danced criss-cross across a whole web of intersectionalist identity politics.
In Jewish mythology, Lilith was Adam's first wife – the one woman not forged from a bloke's spare rib – and something of that survives. Binaries of all sorts, all categories and conformites, ultimately suit the patriarchal norm. Powerful men tend to come out on top, and it's the bumptious Penworth who's the butt of the joke here. Bowers is a blast, attempting to woo his exotic creation and belittling his female lab partner, Genevieve Giuffre's long-suffering Travers.
Formally, it's intriguing: a mash-up of classic spoof and bittier meme culture. The script swerves into extended asides and gratuitous offshoots. Two lions, straight out of the Mighty Boosh playbook, deliver a grime number about growing up wild, and Lilith drifts into a hallucination that runs the Lion King through a mincer. Good old-fashioned wordplay rubs up against surrealist non-sequitors; even, at one point, death by fern. This is a show that refuses to conform to old genre binaries – and, while it takes time to come together, it's all the better for it. One of a kind.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl runs at the Traverse Theatre, until 27 August, times vary.