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Photo: Robert Day

Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter…

5 August 2018 Suzanne Frost

For anyone growing up with Disney’s The Little Mermaid there was never really any doubt – under the sea was obviously way better than above. Forsaking her mermaid form and becoming a fulltime human, Ariel clearly made the wrong choice. It is very satisfying then, that Metta Theatre’s feminist retelling of the originally very tragic Hans Christian Anderson fairytale sees the Prince choosing the ocean life to be with his love.

Metta Theatre are an award winning physical theatre company who cross art forms – blending live music, song, sound effects, dance and circus skills – to tell stories full of emotion and imaginative theatricality.  Although The Little Mermaid will mostly appeal to children, there are enough poetic and beautiful moments to keep grown-ups enthralled as well. The multi skilled performers don’t need much in terms of sets or props to draw you into their world. Atmosphere is created through a soundscape of crushing waves and crying seagulls and the choreography evokes the sensation of fluidity with performers weightlessly diving through the air.

Photo: Robert Day

Artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan called the production radically feminist and politically provocative. Fear not though, the little ones will hardly notice. What they will see is a strong heroine swimming against the stream, making her own choices and a certain gender fluidity in the underwater world that is presented with such casualness, it is not even really worth mentioning. Yes, the male performers wear the same 1950s swimsuits and floral bathing caps as the women, which is probably as much due to the small cast performing multiple roles as it is a modern statement.
 
The little mermaid is the youngest of 6 sisters who grew up with an absent father and a dead mother, leaving the oldest sister in charge, trying to protect her siblings from the realms of humans and from a terrible secret…
 
Photo: Robert Day

The little one, the most curious and rebellious of them all, yearns to go up above sea level, and on one of her trips, sets her eyes on a seafaring prince who moments later she has to rescue from drowning. Seamlessly the stage transforms into the ocean in your mind, as the mermaid carries the unconscious man on her aerial hoop. The inventiveness applied to telling a technically hard to stage story is breath taking. The multitalented, versatile performers put all their skills - from singing to playing the fiddle to puppetry (a friendly seahorse is created from an upside down clarinet), aerial acrobatics to human towers - into the service of telling the story. It is truly narrative circus. A Chinese pole serves as the mast of a ship, illuminated juggling balls capture and lock with nothing but a gesture the voice of the little mermaid which she sacrifices as payment for a pair of human legs. She then dons a pair of red ballet shoes to symbolise her human form – and any film fan knows that Red Shoes don’t exactly bring any luck to ballerinas…

Photo: Robert Day
 
In the world of humans, the little mermaid isn’t just voiceless, there are a whole set of rules and society regulations to follow, comically satirised by a royal makeover of skirts, corsets and gloves thrust on to our wild sea creature. She subsequently rebels (by swinging head down off a chandelier in the middle of a ballroom) and the fickle prince goes on to marry a different, more regular girl.
 
Instead of pining for the man, this little mermaid returns to the sea and floats on a bit of wooden debris yeaning for her lost underwater home. It is these poetic moments of illusion, a performer balancing on the feet of another, floating, fragile, imitating wave movements, where your imagination fills in all the missing pieces and the true magic of Metta Theatre unfolds.
 
Photo: Robert Day

Luckily, it turns out the evil Sea Witch, played by Rupert Jenkyn Jones in a jellyfish costume whose tentacles get animated by his giant hoop acrobatics, is actually the mermaids’ long lost mother who grew bitter over an equally disloyal human lover. She can, however be persuaded to overcome her vengeful feelings and gives the little mermaid back her voice and her fishtail.
 
All we need now for a happy ending is a prince making a sacrifice for once. And in 2018, he does! Honestly, who wouldn’t though, for the chance to swim through thin air in the Spiegeltent. And that is the power of this production: Not a single drop of water in sight but in your imagination, a whole underwater world unfolds.
 
The Little Mermaid by Metta Theatre is at Underbelly Festival until 12 August.
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