Shared Experience & Nottingham Playhouse at Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
With the recent flurry of live-action Disney remakes, our fascination with fairy tales shows no signs of abating, but of all the stories, Hans Christian-Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ is one of the boldest choices to attempt to transfer to the theatre. An underwater paradise of mythical creatures, monstrous sea-witches and bodily transformations is no easy undertaking, yet Polly Teale has managed to create such a world in her contemporary retelling, simply titled Mermaid.
The dark, minimalist set serves as both dry land and the surface of the sea, with the depths of the ocean on the floor beneath. Fixed a few feet above the ground, its elevation enables the mermaids to appear from underneath the stage, their white costumes glowing as they emerge from the darkness, giving them an ethereal presence. Absent tails, Liz Ranken’s imaginative choreography forces the actors to use the movements of their bodies to create the illusion of swimming, to great effect. However, it seemed an odd choice to omit even just a slight change in costume to represent the transformation from tail to legs as this would have been easy enough to achieve and would have given the younger members of the audience a more visual window into the action.
The flowing, lyrical movements of the actors were beautiful to watch. One sequence in particular in which the Prince is drowning, entwined by the four mermaids, showcased the vast potential of these young performers. An undulating mass of limbs set to the crashing of waves and interspersed with the Prince’s desperate rasps for air made for a spellbinding scene, matched only be the hauntingly gorgeous melody of the Little Mermaid’s song. Sarah Twomey’s unearthly melody was taken up by the chorus of locally hand-picked young girls, who surround the stage throughout the play creating an otherly yet beautiful tune to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
As volunteers for the run of shows playing in Cardiff’s Sherman Cymru theatre, the group of girls served only as extras in two scenes, with almost all the eight cast members fulfilling multiple roles. The diversity of the roles was enormous; from innocent young mermaids to ruthless news reporters and twisted sea witches, Ritu Arya, Miranda Mac Letten and Amaka Okafor were particularly impressive in their ability to seamlessly shift character. However, the costume choices and direction of the sea witch scene was uncomfortable, sadly distracting from the wonderful acting of the four girls embodying the monstrous villain. Provocatively dressed in plastic S&M style underwear, basques, corsets and suspenders, the sexually charged movements of the actors seemed rather inappropriate for a show with no age restriction.
Indeed the entire show seemed unsure of its target audience, strong sexual undertones and the adult humour of an extremely thorough bikini wax hinted at a more mature market, whilst much of the earlier interactions between The Little Mermaid and Grandmer were repetitive and littered with moralistic life lessons, seemingly aimed at a younger audience. The plotline too was confused at times. Narrated by Blue (Natalie Gavin), a 13 year old attitude-ridden girl obsessed with mermaids, the two storylines occasionally collided, but often without the characters being able to see each other, making it unclear as to whether Blue was simply fantasising the whole time, the story she was writing was becoming reality, or if she was fabricating around true events. The ending especially was baffling in its abruptness and complete deviation from the original tale, leaving a feeling of slight unfulfillment.
The real power of this remake lay with the Prince. Exquisitely written and superbly acted by Finn Hanlon, his storyline was so powerful it almost eclipsed that of The Little Mermaid herself. His mind shattered by his near death experience and the horrors of fighting in the Afghanistan war, his were the ramblings of a madman, exquisite in their heart-breaking nonsense: ‘I dreamt I was a butterfly. Or am I a butterfly dreaming that I’m a man?’ His philosophical musings bring a depth to the piece, echoing some of the Little Mermaid’s earlier conversations regarding the soul, the eternal struggle of mankind to leave their mark upon the world and the incomprehensible brutality and ultimate futility of war. With such massive themes covered in a 90 minute show it is no small wonder if the piece seems slightly unfinished.
Whilst some of the modern twists were a little overdone (any reference to the twerking of Miley Cyrus is likely to be a touch too far for me) and some sensitive issues relating to eating disorders were put across rather clumsily, there were some beautiful subtleties which really made the piece. Jon Nicholl’s music and sound effects were spectacular, plunging the audience straight into the heart of the ocean whilst Tom Piper’s shadowy mirror and marble-effect set really brought the piece to life. Despite its flaws, ‘Mermaid’ is an ambitious and brave piece of theatre, bringing a classic fairy tale crashing into the 21st century and questioning the very essence of humanity.
(Image credits requested)