Friday, May 31, 2013

On The Bodily Education of Young Girls

On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls (Fraught Outfit) runs at Melbourne Theatre Company from May 30 – June 9 2013. Adapted from the novella by Frank Wedekind, directed by Adena Jacobs.

I guess it’s fitting that the next piece I saw after I wrote that long piece on adaptation was itself an adaptation. I was in Melbourne for academic purposes, and took the chance to catch up with the preview of the latest offering from the exciting MTC Neon program, On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls. This piece by Fraught Outfit has its roots in Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella Mine-haha, a strange, surreal account of a very bizarre boarding school.

I have a little familiarity with the original novella, having encountered it tangentially in the course of my doctoral research. So I guess this review comes with a disclaimer of sorts, because my perception of this text comes not only via the novella but the specific academic lens through which I was looking at it. My interest in it comes because of its relationship to a sub-genre of pornography: the boarding school porno. These are often set in all girls’ boarding schools, where girls either sexually initiate each other or are initiated by a teacher or authority figure. (Seventeenth century French pornographic text L’École Des FillesThe School for Girls – is one such text. It was among the first pornographic works to be translated into English, and there’s a fascinating passage in Samuel Pepys’ diary where he talks about buying it, masturbating to it, and burning it.) The single sex boarding school, which is supposed to be this repository of chastity, in fact becomes this site of incredible sexual activity.

Mine-haha is not porn, but it draws on this literary lineage. Younger girls are taken under the wings of older girls. They’re only taught a select range of subjects – music and dance among them, as demonstrated in this production – and are taught to “think from the hips”, an obvious riff on this tradition of the pornographic boarding school. Eventually, they are conscripted into performances that fund the school, very young women innocently acting in sexually charged performances for a voyeuristic audience. This audience is presumably male – suffice it to say that the dominant gaze in porn is always male – and there is a fascinating section where a caged woman rails about her plight, which has led to very interesting feminist readings of the text. It’s a short text but a fascinating one, and one which could be and should be very rich in performance.

Unfortunately, I just really didn’t feel On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls. Sure, the basic ingredients were there – the bizarre boarding school where they only teach a couple of subjects, the strange performances – but it felt empty. The sinister overtones of the original were largely missing. There was a moment right at the beginning of the show where the lights came up brightly on the audience, perhaps reminding us that we were part of the play, spectators of the girls’ show, but this was really the only suggestion of overt voyeurism we get. Likewise, the show the girls put on is definitely weird, but there’s none of the sense of exploitation that exists in the novella, which I think is key to the text (especially when reading it against a pornographic tradition). It’s certainly not especially erotic. I am sure it’s meant to be allegorical, but if you asked me to identify what its meant to be allegorical for...? Female power play, I guess? Maybe? It’s really hard to tell. There are also none of the proto-feminist bits, and I found the elision of these a bit sad. I had high hopes for that particular element of the text in performance.

This is a wordless piece of theatre: the story is told entirely through movement, music, and costume. I’ll be the first to admit that non-verbal theatre isn’t exactly my favourite form ever, but I don’t think that’s what my problem with On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls was. To me, it didn’t seem like it knew what it was trying to achieve. If you asked me to identify what the point of this show was, I don’t think I could do it – whereas if you asked me to identify what the point of the novella was, I could talk from a while about the different readings that could be applied. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading this text against the pornographic tradition, but to me, it felt like it missed a lot. I’m not averse to someone doing a Simon Stone on Mine-haha –that is, taking the text, “corrupting” it, and finding new meanings – but I really couldn’t find a lot of meaning in this one at all.

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