An energetic and engaging show exploring the pressure of external influences
The Little Mermaid might be best known to contemporary audiences through the 1989 animated Disney film: cheerful and guileless, it reimagines Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale as a celebration of 'love without boundaries' in which the mermaid's self-sacrifice brings love and happiness. This saccharine vision has little in common with either Andersen's story or Meow Meow's cabaret-inflected production, which engages with notions of love, perfection and self-mutilation without sentimentality.
With a full run during the Edinburgh International Festival, Meow Meow's Little Mermaid marks both the ascension of Meow Meow and the power of theatre-inspired cabaret to take on serious issues without losing its charm and playfulness. With new songs from Amanda Palmer, Kate Miller-Heidke and lounge rock activist Thomas M Lauderdale from Pink Martini – Meow Meow calls them 'my sirens' – this Little Mermaid is a journey into more troubled waters.
'I haven't seen the Disney version,' she states. 'Well, I've seen bits of it.' This has clearly allowed Meow Meow to find her own interpretation of the mermaid's adventure, and rescue the fairy story from its twee associations. Entwining episodes from her own romantic life around Andersen's tale, Meow Meow applies her exacting intellect to the mermaid's quest for love, seeing her failure to seduce the prince, and Andersen's personal preoccupations as far more enticing. 'I guess I am trying to do it from a post-structuralist point of view, that meaning is shifting all the time,' she explains. Rather than drawing a trite conclusion about love's dynamism, she recognises the anguish that comes from a belief in perfection.
Love in Hans Christian Andersen's story is all about the chase after an ideal. 'The mermaid falls in love with a statue from a shipwreck, something inanimate. Within the story, it is already clear that that this is not realistic!' she explains. 'But yet, it is also validated in Andersen's story when she sees the statue made flesh, she falls in love with the prince.' This idealisation of the beloved – a theme that Meow Meow notes has a long 'history going back to troubadours and courtly love in the Middle Ages' – opens up a conversation about 'the great divide between the image and the experience people are grappling with all the time' and lends the fairy tale a contemporary relevance.
credit: Pia Johnson
Calling this production a morality tale for the social media generation doesn't do justice to her playfulness or her lively, incisive thoughts on the mutability of perception: she shuttles between identifying Andersen's 'fear of becoming an adult, his terror about perfection, that it must involve self-mutilation and a lack of fulfillment' and the modern dilemmas posed by Facebook and its insistence on presenting a version of life that is perfected and happy. Rather, The Little Mermaid becomes a place for reflection, in which ideals of romantic love, spiritual beauty and sacrifice are measured against real experience.
She points out that, although the mermaid is firmly associated with romantic exoticism, the love that she experiences leads her to exchange her voice in order to be able to walk on land, a striking metaphor for the exclusion of women's experience. 'She gives up the thing that defines her in order to dance for the prince and maybe win his love,' she says. 'But he has no comprehension that she loves him. She recognises that his true love is someone else, and in the end, rather than kill the prince to save herself, she throws herself overboard so he may have real happiness. There is a constant theme of self-sacrifice making her worthy.'
Andersen may have been expressing the Christian values of his time, but Meow Meow can see the parallels with today. The pressure of external influences, the need to chase 'unreal visions of happiness and perfection – bodily and spiritually' and present them on Facebook – 'It's propaganda!' she concludes. Meanwhile, the traditions that defined love, the troubadours and poets 'has turned into Hallmark cards and Valentine's day and the selling of love' as a commodity. Not only is Meow Meow's interpretation of The Little Mermaid ignoring its Disneyfication, it is a counterblast against its simplistic materialism.
Nevertheless, Meow Meow's discussion of the ideas behind the show does not take into account the witty, flirtatious and joyful energy that she brings to performance. Last year, in collaboration with Barry Humphries, she gave life to many banned numbers from Weimar cabaret, and her onstage presence – sensual and charming, emotional and virtuosic – lends these serious ideas her distinctive sense of fun and humour. Her rise as an international star of cabaret and theatre – she has played Titania at London's Globe Theatre – comes from her ability to merge the seductive and the political, and the intimate with the intellectual: exactly the virtues that have made Weimar cabaret so influential in the past decade. Simultaneously escapist and drawing attention to the world outside, Meow Meow's Little Mermaid exchanges the easy platitudes and sentimentality of Disney's fairy tales for an adult confrontation with changing ideals without descending into moralising or misery. It's a rare performance that matches its ambition with its sensitivity and compassion.
Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, The Hub, 5–27 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), 10.30pm (also 7.30pm on 12, 19, 26 Aug), £15--£32. Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £12–£26.
Forget the Little Mermaid you thought you knew. Meow Meow’s subversive cabaret is a fairytale gone rogue.
The legendary post-post-modern diva takes up residence in International Festival HQ for a festival-long run. Joined by a posse of DIY princes, she gives Hans Christian Andersen’s story of self-sacrifice, seduction…