It just so happened that my last day of seeing shows in Edinburgh this year was entirely mermaid-themed. My middle name is Lorelei, which is the name of the siren who enchants sailors on the Rhine in 19th-century German songs and poetry, so siren stories have always held an extra lure for me.
The first was Siren, the debut musical play written by award-winning comedian David Elms, and directed by Thomas Martin. It’s a song-sprinkled two-hander with serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows. It also has a dark edge – it is an exploration of the siren archetype, complete with the murderous elements from the ancient Greek tales and the sorrow of the Romantic-era mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul.
Rosa Robson is wonderful in the title role, as a siren cursed by fate to inhabit her little island alone: ‘we’re usually in pairs’ she explains sadly to one of her sailors. Styled as a 1950s, Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming pin-up, she oscillates between bright gaiety and the slowly-revealed cracking of her mind, caused by the heartbreaking loneliness of her island. ‘I’ve built a mound’, she tells us in one of her monologues, ‘that almost looks like another person from the right angle’. Her beautiful voice brought the show’s bright array of songs to life. Nicholas Masters also gives a strong performance as Robson’s counterpoint in this pas de deux, playing the variety of sailors who are pulled into her song’s compelling aura, as the show deftly and subtly unpacks various forms of attraction, desire, and love.
This is a beautifully-written show. Its bright and dark tones, its shallows and depths, are swirled in a story that feels particular and modern, but also universal and ancient. It unearthed psychological currents running powerfully underneath the siren archetype, exploring the sadness of broken forms of attraction and loving, longing and loneliness…and also, off in the distance, perhaps redemption and hope. I loved it.
After the enchanting Siren, it was time for Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International Festival. I walked from Pleasance Dome, where Siren took place in a humble, tiny black box theatre, to a ballroom inside The Hub, which had a huge stage draped in streams of silver glitter, luxurious booths upholstered in crushed purple velvet, two bars, a live band with strings playing sexy bossa nova, and a packed, murmuring crowd.
This show is a cabaret performance in which Meow Meow is the immortal mermaid drenched in loneliness, singing and searching for true love…and the truth about love. Meow Meow, the Australian creator and performer of the show, is described variously as a singer, actress, dancer, cabaret performer and ‘international, kamikaze, post-punk superstar’. I would describe her as an artist, above all, for the brilliance of the show’s script. It has a story arc that, like Siren, is sourced from the deeper psychological octaves of the siren story, and which dropped, non-stop, beat by exhilarating beat, words that were gilded and diamond-encrusted with poetic meaning, falling perfectly within the grandiose, comedic style of cabaret, and the show’s poignant theme – like a fountain, or rain at sea.
The show starts with a riotous thunderstorm, and then Meow Meow comes on-stage sobbing. She starts singing throatily, through her sobs, a lurching, slow rendition of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ (‘Here I go out to sea again/The sunshine fills my hair/And dreams hang in the air/You know it feels unfair/There’s magic everywhere/Look at me standing/Here on my own again…’). She is accompanied by a mournful brass-heavy band. Then she gradually transitions from sobbing and singing into her first, sweet, skittering, chatty monologue filled with glittering wordplay, in which she finally snaps: ‘I feel like I’ve been travelling everywhere for 300 years looking for true love, but I can’t fucking find it!’…though, she tells us later, sometimes finding ‘Faux Love…Flove’.
She conjures the ocean onstage, telling us, as she looks upwards from the depths of the ocean floor, that ‘many church steeples piled upon each other would not reach the surface’. This is imagery that beautifully evokes the quiet, vast depths of the ocean, but also the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid’s longing to reach upwards to heaven, to become human, to find love, to have a soul.
Her most delightful theatrical magic trick is to conjure her subconscious on stage and rummage around in it in search of catharsis, which resonates grandly with the metaphor of the mysterious watery depths of the ocean…but which also feels resolutely practical, as if this is a mermaid ready to transcend her despair and loneliness, ready to break the spell.