Within Shared Experience’s stunning visual aesthetic, combining as it does fluid evocations of fins and tails with an exploration of the line which divides the worlds of humans and mermaids, Polly Teale’s new take on Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid feels familiar while also imbuing it with the thrill of a new encounter. Hers is a refreshingly contemporary approach to the fairy tale, drawing out both the political and the personal from the iconic images.
The production attempts to tell two slightly different stories, both fascinating but awkwardly linked. On the one hand, the Little Mermaid’s story is a coming-of-age narrative. The mermaids writhe and somersault on the stage floor and then, as they come of age, break the surface and move onto a large upper level to encounter the human world. The lower space is filled with a chorus of fourteen local girls, singing and swaying throughout the production, a constant reminder of the undersea world as a space for girls. The upper world is conversely coded as male (the two male actors rarely occupy the lower space) and threatening, especially as Sarah Twomey’s Mermaid is forced to undergo a full makeover, including waxing, and then exposed to the press.
From a world which understands no possession, desire or conflict, the Mermaid is thrust into a world where Finn Hanlon’s Prince is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (evoked here through the metaphor of drowning) after a tour in Afghanistan, and where their marriage is immediately arranged by Polly Frame’s Queen to provide a necessary distraction for the people from a politically awkward overseas conflict. The love infatuation ends quickly as the Mermaid longs for the sea, and play ends with the Mermaid’s return to her underwater home. Yet evocative as it is, the associations of this are troubling; if the adult/male world is threatening and unkind, the Mermaid’s only option is an undoing of her experience in a move that arrests the coming-of-age narrative. While the production yearns for female solidarity, this is aligned uncomfortably with a regression to childhood.
The production’s other, and more effective, story is that of Kate Middleton as, here, a literal fish out of water. The production brilliantly wrong-foots the audience by showing the royal family at sea to commemorate the Prince’s own coming of age in what appears to be typically eighteenth-century costumes and ceremony, before the ambulance that collects the Prince from the beach suggests the royal family remain an anachronism in a modern world. Teale’s critique is of the fairy-tale narratives that continue to surround the royal family, both in its own conception of itself and in the investment placed by a nation in royal affairs.
The Mermaid is brought into a system that does not care she cannot speak, and which immediately begins costuming and training her to be the ideal princess. As the Mermaid becomes disillusioned and ill, we hear snippets of news reports of her bulimia and stress, the reporters more fascinated by her weight loss than by the war in Afghanistan that rumbles along in the background.
The difficulty is that the coming-of-age narrative and the pointed satire on the media’s treatment of the royals do not entirely coalesce. The play’s framing device is underdeveloped: a teenage girl, Blue, bullied by increasingly ‘grown-up’ friends for her lack of fashion and grooming sense, begins writing the story of the Mermaid, intertwining it with her own life – it is Blue who finds the half-drowned Prince and receives her own moment of media attention, reporters demanding exclusive rights in return for money that will help a jobless family out of poverty; and Blue who eventually finds the princess on a beach and provides her with the love that allows both to return to the sea. Yet the play’s abrupt ending and dead ends (including a brief glimpse of her parents’ troubles) do not go far enough to yoke the multiple strands.
Teale’s direction is sublime, with the movement work of the mermaids in particular creating a three-dimensional visual palette that at times looks dangerous – especially as the furniture of the upper level is thrown off the platform in the throes of a shipwreck. Twomey had been injured shortly before press night, meaning that she was unable to take part in the physical sequences, yet this worked in the production’s favour as the Little Mermaid’s stillness and poise contrasted with the thrashing of her sisters and of the four-headed, screeching Sea Witch. In this image of stillness among chaos, the key achievement of Mermaid emerged as an exploration of loneliness amid a chaotic and constantly changing world.