With the Bill Henson affair still resonating, and the closure, only this week, of another art gallery after accusations of child pornography, you might expect Fraught Outfit’s adaptation of On the Bodily Education of Young Girls to have something of a dangerous edge to it – after all, this is a work that positions its audience as both violator and defender of innocence. But what we’re given instead is a listless piece of theatre; a play that lacks any measure of life.
What drama there is in this one-hour piece comes in the first few minutes. A dark stage and an ominous, heavy soundscape broken only by the occasional whisper. As the light slowly builds, we begin to make out shapes in the darkness. A piano and a ballet barre on an otherwise bare stage. Young girls, dressed in white leotards and leggings, practising their ballet drills. Then the arrival of a new girl, and her gradual initiation into the exercises. It’s a beguiling opening.
The problem is that the play never moves on from this moment – all there is are the changing formations of the girls on the stage and the arrival of two teachers who watch over them. Nothing is ever said. Nothing of any interest ever happens. When an old woman (who we must presume corresponds to Wedekind’s narrator) comes onto the stage, she might as well be an audience member who’s wandered through the wrong door – she looks just as perplexed as the rest of us.
In her program notes, director Adena Jacobs writes that the play attempts to ‘create a theatrical poem through a contemporary lens; an age in which power is exercised virally and imperceptibly, and the natural world confronts its own extinction.’ None of this has filtered through into the finished work. There is no poetry here, and even though the purpose of the girls’ education is to imbue them with the ‘proper’ way of moving, there is neither grace nor beauty.
What seems to have been forgotten in this adaptation is that innocence is a construct – it cannot exist in a vacuum. And by giving us barely a glimpse of the framing story – and by not giving the old woman looking back on her life a voice – the whole thing has been robbed of meaning.
The young cast make the most of what is a thankless task, while the talents of both Karen Sibbing and Luisa Hastings Edge are largely wasted. Jacobs’ direction hits the occasional high note – Sibbing’s character subtly adjusting the hair of one of her charges; a student mirroring the finger movements of the other teacher as she plays the piano – but for the most part it’s awkward and self-conscious, particularly when the girls are enacting their plays. With their mock executions and constrained gender roles, these pageants should have a visceral impact, but they are as dreary as the rest.
It would be a mistake to judge Fraught Outfit solely on the basis of this work. They have produced some exceptional pieces of theatre, but this is not their finest hour. Far from being an exposition of sexual repression and the manufacture of innocence, ‘an elegy for childhood’ and ‘a craving for the ideal’, On the Bodily Education of Young Girls seems like nothing more than a schoolgirl sleepover that has gone a little awry.
Fraught Outfit presents
On The Bodily Education of Young Girls
inspired by Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella Mine–Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls
Director Adena Jacobs
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
Dates: 30 May – 9 June 2013
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au
Part of MTC's NEON: Festival of Independent Theatre