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The “German lesbian” tag pretty much guarantees sensational billing for Fassbinder’s play, which he turned into a film in 1972 and Gerald Barry recently made into an opera. Spectators hardly batted an eyelid at the four-metre naked mannequin dominating the stage as they took their seats.

Shock horrors apart, the subject is really the stuff of everyday life: the self-deception underpinning relationships, the viciousness of class differences, the intertwining of love, domination and subservience. Hypersuccessful Petra, a 30-something designer already widowed and divorced, is encircled by types: unmaternal mother, bitchy girlfriend, dumbcluck daughter, exploited servant Marlene. She lurches into obsessive love for free-thinking Karin, who finally wriggles free from these power struggles and walks out..

What is intriguing is that the Italian director Antonio Latella unearths a touchy-feely dimension. Not at first. We get the cold extremes of expressionism with a laboratory – white plastic-wrapped bare set, caricatured extremes of cinch-belted womanhood, crystalline lighting, the clinical mega-mannequin more buddha than sex symbol. Strictly no beds or human clutter. But beautifully executed shadow play introduces softness and an unexpected erotic whiff. The lighting warms up and the lyric “one girl, one boy, some grief, some joy” softly parodies romantic love. Whereas Marlene walks out in the film and silently screams in the opera, here she not only stays but we get a Mona Lisa-esque smile.

This text is too didactic for me but Latella is a terrific director of actors and effectively navigates this well-cast female ensemble effectively through such quicksands. Laure Marinoni’s powerful Petra moves from petulant fragility through self-abasement with warmth and sensuality and is well contrasted with the gamine Karin (Silvia Ajelli) and the elegant mute force of Barbara Schröer as Marlene.

In spite of this production’s energy and conviction, I missed Fassbinder’s cruel clarity and found the soft-centred version a little hard to swallow. ★★★☆☆

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