Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to Shared Experience’s artistic director Polly Teale about adapting and directing Mermaid.
Shared Experience is renowned for its imaginative and physical adaptations of literary classics. Now the award-winning theatre company is bringing the world première of Mermaid, its bold re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen‘s classic fairy story of The Little Mermaid, to the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
For writer and director Polly Teale it is a tale that goes right back to her childhood.
“It’s a story that I knew really well when I was a child,” Teale recalls. “In fact I had it on a record that I used to play back in the day. It was Charlie Chester with this very gravelly voice telling the story and I’d be in sheds of tears. It was a terrible story about a mermaid who had her tongue cut out to gain legs.
“I suppose it wasn’t until years later I thought, ‘what was it about that story that so captivated me?’ And I think there are several things: it has this magical world beneath the sea which is incredibly tantalising, and that notion of early childhood’s freedom, and in my version there is no time, death, loss or separation. Like when you are a young child and you don’t know what day of the week or what time of day it is – a feeling of quite unselfconscious freedom.”
As artistic director of Shared Experience, Teale has been instrumental in pioneering a distinctive performance style which, according to the company’s website, ‘celebrates the union of physical and text-based theatre. We are committed to creating theatre that goes beyond our everyday existence, giving form to the hidden world of the psyche/emotion and imagination. We seek to explore the relationship between the world we inhabit and our inner lives’.
Although Shared Experience is based in Oxford, Teale studied drama at Manchester where she began to write and direct. After moving to London she mounted productions on the fringe before embarking on a series of projects at the National Theatre studios. It was only when she sent a flattering letter to Nancy Meckler, co-founder of Shared Experience, that her career really took off.
As for Mermaid, the original story goes thus: on her 16th birthday, a mermaid rises up to the surface, leaving her childhood behind forever when she falls in love with a mortal prince. She knows that she can no longer live at the bottom of the ocean, but must she destroy herself in order to be loved?
“The idea is that when they come up to the surface they see our world and it’s only in that moment that they become aware of themselves as something that can be seen by others,” says Teale.
“That’s at the heart of the story – the idea that this mermaid sells her tongue in order to gain legs and for any young girl there is some sense that perhaps going out there into the world you are going to be some kind of lost self and the only way the mermaid can win the prince’s love is through being beautiful.”
So for Teale the fairy story has very much a contemporary relevance. “It just struck me as an interesting story for today when young girls are just deluged by media imagery of a very narrow ideal of femininity.
“Apparently some 50,000 women underwent some kind of invasive procedure last year in order to change the way they look. Even things like stripping away all body hair and this phobia about the way we naturally are – it’s almost become the norm. That’s interesting because in the play all of this is seen through the eyes of the mermaid.
“In fact she gets kind of ‘made-over’ – she’s like a little animal at the beginning of it all and she gets turned into a kind of Kate Middleton. You see her being completely stripped, plucked, make-up put on her and very high heels, and from the perspective of the mermaid it’s a type of torture.”
She adds: “So it’s been interesting to look at our world through the eyes of the mermaid and seeing it in all its strangeness and brutality and the arbitrary hierarchies that exist. The Prince, of course, is part of the Royal family and she becomes part of this and there’s all this media scrum around them, the idea of celebrity. So it also takes a look at all of that.”
So how will a young audience cope with the dark, erotic and mythic power? “I hope that it will be able to be accessible to anybody from the age of 12 upwards – it’s very visual and physical. And it is a big love story, it’s about the powerful attraction between the prince and the mermaid and it’s all about that period of puberty when all these powerful feelings start to erupt. It’s something we can all relate to, whatever age we are, and the production is very bold.”
This is very much a contemporary take on the classic tale. “The world they see when they come up is quite close to our own world – so the Prince is going off to war in Afghanistan, there’s the paparazzi, the sense of an ever-hungry media constantly on the prowl. So it’s somewhere between a fairy story and the reality of our world and that makes a really interesting collision.”
“It’s brilliant – the whole effect is these mirrors which are as if they’ve been under the sea for years and they give these beautiful ghostly reflections which give the feeling of infinite wateriness. But when you come up above and are in the palace they also work really well – you get that feeling of huge rooms that are full of mirrors. He creates a landscape that keeps changing.”
Shared Experience has created an innovative participation project around Mermaid which is open nationally to young women aged 14-20. In each of the cities the tour is visiting, including Leeds, the company is recruiting a chorus of young women who will be part of the production, performing on stage, and creating the sound of the mermaid’s singing.
Teale says: “I think it’s really exciting to find a way of engaging directly with the people in each place that you go to and having that chorus of 20 young girls and not just connecting with them but with their families and friends. It gives it a different feeling and the girls are so hungry to talk about all this stuff and so engaged and that feels really exciting. It gives the whole project a different way of engaging and connecting.”
So what would she like an audience member to take away with them from the show? “I hope they will have a really powerful magical time that will make them think and I hope it’s both really visually exciting but very stimulating as well.”
By Rich Jevons
Where: Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
When: March 25-28, 2015 and touring