It's one of the most quietly intriguing scenarios in all Western literature. Naked, packed into a crate, a young girl is delivered to a mysterious finishing school in the middle of a lush park set behind a high perimeter wall. There, without explanation and with hardly any supervision, she and hundreds of other young girls are inducted into an idealised educational regime that includes music, swimming and ballet.
Mine-Haha or On The Bodily Education of Young Girls, a novella by the German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), is being adapted for the stage by Melbourne company Fraught Outfit, led by artistic director Adena Jacobs.
It's a busy couple of months for Jacobs and her company, who are also remounting Persona, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's experimental cinema masterpiece, after an award-winning season last year at Theatre Works and earlier this year at Sydney's Belvoir.
Juggling the two projects has been a challenge for the young director, but also productive.
"Formally there's something I took from Persona in the relationship between the cinematic and the theatrical," says Jacobs. "There's something inherently very cinematic about the Wedekind. The mixture between the highly naturalistic interactions between the girls and the cool distance with which Wedekind writes the text. There's a wide-angled lens, but at the same time a kind of minute, micro narrative, minute interactions happening between the girls at that particular place at that time. I'm really attracted to the zoom in and zoom out, and the combinations between the two."
Indeed, the cinematic potential of Wedekind's story has recently been explored in two very different film adaptations. The most recent, from 2005, is British director John Irvin's The Fine Art of Love, which turned the story into a frankly voyeuristic lesbian romance.
In its carefully observed physical descriptions of young bodies, Wedekind's story does have an undeniable sexual piquancy. We felt ourselves in our legs and feet more than in our eyes and fingers, writes the narrator. Of none of the girls do I remember her way of talking. I only remember how they walked. The book's combination of sensuality and seclusion most recently led Marianne Faithful to describe the book as "perversely erotic ... and anti-society".
But unlike Spring Awakening – the play in which Wedekind captured the awkward horror and fleeting exaltation of adolescent yearning – desire in Mine-Haha is presented more ambiguously, stalking at a distance, often visiting in the guise of death. And unlike John Irvin, Jacobs is not keen to make that aspect the focus of her production.
"I think there is an erotic undercurrent, but it's not one that I'm personally interested in," she says. "I think it was a provocative book at the time because of the way he was framing young girls, but that aspect of it doesn't feel as interesting in 2013. I think the erotic is something we assume about young girls, and it's sort of unfair and deprives them of the depth that they have."
The other film, from 2004, a French film called Innocence, directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is a much cooler, aestheticised vision: quiet, beautifully shot, built to a kind of enigmatic symbolism where relations are much more uncertain.
It was Hadzihalilovic's film that first introduced Jacobs to Wedekind's book.
"I was interested in these young girls in exile or a secluded environment and the way that the film maker filmed that kind of environment and filmed their bodies. After I read the Wedekind I started imagining that it could be a show. There's something about exploring that in a theatre with a live body on stage that is really interesting "
Jacobs is keen to go beyond the erotic potential of the scenario and explore the stranger implications of the tale.
"I'm working with a cast of young female performers to create something which has ideas much larger than the erotic, something which is hopefully about existential ideas of what it means to be a person, the future, the body, death, purity, these themes and ideas, and performance itself," she says.
This makes a fascinating follow-up to her adaptation of Bergman's Persona, where loss of personal identity becomes a source of terror.
"You have people forced to cohere, forced into a nightmare of the self. It's an existential terror told through the bodies of women. In Persona there were two women. Here there is an institution."'
This institution in Wedekind's proto-expressionist fable, the academy, is exclusively for pre-pubescent girls, which creates a dilemma for theatre makers. In a film it is relatively easy to show children interacting in the kind of unselfconscious way Wedekind describes; but doing it on stage is much harder. Indeed, Wedekind even uses the symbol of a stage – a theatrette hidden on the school grounds – to figure coming of age, as the older girls are forced to perform for an audience of outsiders.
How then to perform this 'innocence' when performance itself is a symbol of innocence lost? This paradox has led Jacobs into a radical contemporary re-imagining of the book's characters. Her cast includes not children but teenagers, performers between the ages of 13 and 16 from St Martin's Teen Ensemble.
"What I have battled with is that in the book they feel like children, and my girls are teenagers. That feels like a stark difference," says Jacobs. "These kind of girls don't exist in the novel. I'm pitching them as who they are, not as children, but at the same time it's not about them as young people, not in 2013."
Jacobs is hoping to create a heightened, alternative space, one that looks something like our own, but is not, one which speaks to a broader set of themes than the education of young girls.
"There are a lot of shows about young people, about what it means to be young. This is not my answer to that. This will hopefully be a more poetic work about innocence and power and purity and notions of the future, even though I know somewhere in my mind that this will be told with a kind of bodies of young women."
Fraught Outfit's On the Bodily Education of Young Girls is the second production in the MTC's Neon Festival of Independent Theatre, opening 30 May.