We are all probably familiar with Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid; a young mermaid called Ariel falls in love with a human prince and bargains her voice in a deal with the sea witch for the chance to be with her prince. Being Disney, Hans Christian Andersen’s dark tale is appropriated for the child audience and (spoiler alert – although, if you haven’t already seen it then what have you been doing with your life?) the film unsurprisingly ends in the union of Ariel and Prince Eric. Shared Experience, a widely acclaimed theatre company renowned for their stage adaptations of classic literary texts, remained fairly loyal to the plot of Andersen’s tale in their performance of Polly Teale’s Mermaid at Nottingham Playhouse. In taking the gothic themes of Anderson’s tale and translating them on-stage through modern cultural references to war and eating disorders, Shared Experience facilitated a new understanding of the text’s psychological undercurrents and 21st century society.
I must highly commend the synthesis of dialogue, movement, and sound effects, through which the play was seamlessly choreographed, making its scenes as free flowing as the water that remained always at the heart of the staging. Characters contorted their bodies and moved as though writhing on the ocean-bed to form a visually captivating display. Researching the play before I saw the performance, I was, admittedly, unsure exactly what I was to expect. Nowhere was it made clear whether Mermaid was spoken drama, dance, or music, but I soon came to realise that such definitions only serve to constrain this production. The beauty and power of Teale’s play is that it is free to combine all three forms, using them to invoke the magical world of the mermaids to the stage and create a stunning visualisation of the text.
Unfortunately, as writer and director, Polly Teale, informed the audience just moments prior to the start of the performance, Sarah Twomey (playing Little Mermaid) had sustained an injury, meaning she could not participate in the choreography. While this meant I could not experience the full staging, it did not affect the overall performance and Twomey did well to adapt in her condition. What was great to see was the chorus of teenage girls flanking the stage throughout, who I later learned were involved in a project twinned with the play designed to challenge misconceptions about femininity and foster a sense of empowerment and identity in girls. Femininity and identity is a strong theme in the play, as the little mermaid’s purity is corrupted by the insidious demands of her unloving and unrewarding new world, so it is great to hear that Shared Experience have opted to work with young girls to challenge the impossible ideals of beauty perpetuated through the media.
Overall, Mermaid lived up to its own tagline: ‘a bold reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of love, loss and desire’. A thought-provoking performance marked by its innovative staging, tonight’s performance of Mermaid made for a visually seductive adaptation of Andersen’s tale – one that is definitely worth a watch.
Edited by Harriet Dunlea