Christa Winsloe's play is best known in its own right through its 1931 screen version Mädchen In Uniform, and better still as an influence upon works ranging from Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour to Peter Weir's film Dead Poets Society. The management of BAC has shrewdly programmed this first British stage production in six decades to run alongside the main-house presentation of Wedekind's Spring Awakening, one of Winsloe's own main influences.
The Hochdorf School in this play, however, is located in a very different culture from that of Wedekind's adolescents. Here the daughters of Prussian nobility are drilled in the pseudo-Spartan "great military tradition upon which this institution was founded". This is not a precursor to Nazism, but the old order which that populist movement eventually extinguished. Where Nazi ideologues appropriated Teutonic myths for their own ends, the fifteen-year-old Manuela von Meinhardis's lesbian crush upon her housemistress Fräulein von Bernberg expresses itself naturally in courtly terms up until its final tortured phase.
Herein lies one of the principal obstacles which Sean O'Connor's production must overcome: it may be up to an hour before Barbara Burnham's translation quite ceases to sound insipidly period and the last suspicions of gymslip camp are banished by a devout adherence to archaic dignities. In the early scenes of Manuela's induction into the school, the new girl herself (Kellie Bright) seems the only character not portrayed as a cardboard cut-out, and this is largely because she is so bewildered that she can do little more than observe. Gradually, though, O'Connor's intended atmosphere comes to pervade the studio space, decked out by designer Steve Dennis in an austere monochrome and similarly lit by John Sims.
Even after the interval, some whiffs of mannerism persist as the girls cavort in their post-school play party like some of Miss Jean Brodie's more precocious charges, but by this point it is apparent that the school's rigorous régime is not threatened by youthful excess alone, but by simple humanity. The set-piece confrontation between Heather Chasen's poker-backed headmistress and Fräulein von Bernberg only confirms what has been discreetly present throughout Anna Farnworth's performance: that the younger teacher obtains better results by treating her pupils as individual and human, and that Manuela has mistaken only the degree of her mistress's affection.
O'Connor makes the point of the play subtly – perhaps too much so. It asks quietly to be acknowledged as more than a merely respectful revival, but may be handicapped in that it cannot thereby demand to be paid the close attention which its nuances reward.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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