There are few balances harder to maintain than the balance between goofy humour and sharp-edged social critique. Cloak the mixture in allegory, and the combination shifts from difficult to nigh-overambitious. This is exactly what The Sisters Grimm have sought to achieve with Lilith: The Jungle Girl, a play designed to be as broadly hilarious as it is pungently political. The result is undoubtedly entertaining, but whether they’ve managed the perfect mix is up for debate.
Telling the story of a woman brought to The Netherlands from the jungles of Borneo in 1861 for the purposes of ‘civilising’, it’s to little surprise that the play introduces various elements of radical theatre from the off. Actively subverting binary roles in particular throughout, Lilith fully puts its genderfuck credentials on the table as soon as its title character appears on stage, covered only in a kind of viscous pink-purple goo that – thanks to a brief flash of audience interaction – I discovered is not too difficult to get out of a pair of blue jeans.
As a comedy, Lilith is often whip-smart and disarmingly hilarious, its sense of the absurd gleefully manifested in everything from Lilith’s pathological fear of penguins to her Dutch national costume, complete with working (though slightly malfunctioning) windmill. There’s also a regular line in fourth-wall breaking and wilful anachronisms, with passing references to McFlurrys and the sight of a talking lion called Mallory laying down beats on her synth pad.
The only fault to be found is the niggling sense that several elements are present mainly to artificially induce improv unpredictability within a scripted drama. The aforementioned goo, which starts out as a sincerely surreal touch, begins to feel more forced when it becomes apparent as a medium for ‘random’ slips and trips – although these may become less frequent once three weeks of bruising has set in.
Alas, if the play’s sense of humour is sharp and fully-formed, its tackling of issues ranging from colonialism to cultural appropriation to identity politics feel as if they suffer by comparison, both from a lack of sustained focus and from a piling on of talking points with a facility that borders on the glib. As the company swerves off from a series of stinging insights to land on a feather-light winding up of the plot, the overall priorities feel certain: by opting for the dramatically expedient over the politically profound, Lilith shows its preference for scoring easy gags rather than achieving real bite.
Photos by David Monteith-Hodge.
Lilith: The Jungle Girl runs until 27th August at the Traverse Theatre, various times.