Of all the best-known European fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is arguably the most problematic. The story of a young mermaid who leaves behind everything she has ever known, changes her appearance, endures great physical pain and relinquishes her ability to speak, all in pursuit of a human prince, doesn’t exactly sound like a feminist parable for our times. But director Polly Teale insists enthusiastically that it is, or at least that it is in Mermaid, which opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week. “That’s in a way what we’re doing, looking at this story from a feminist perspective. And as much as anything it’s about what women do to each other.”
Teale has a point. After all it is the female sea witch, rather than the prince, who dictates that the mermaid must sacrifice her tail and her tongue to win love, in what today reads like a metaphor for the image-obsessed messages perpetuated by women’s magazines. Darker still (although Teale does not explicitly refer to this herself) is the modern-day parallel the story draws with FGM, a practice inflicted upon women, by women.
Much of the feminism in Mermaid is conveyed through a framing device that follows a human teenage girl. “She’s being ostracised by the other girls,” Teale explains, “[she’s] mad about mermaids, she has this sort of imaginative inner life, and of course that’s one of the things they take the piss out of. I’m very interested in the way girls at such an early age are with the idea that imaginative play becomes something that you really wouldn’t want to admit to and then all the emphasis is put on appearance and looks, and I think part of the reason that female friendships are often very complicated at that age is because there’s a lot of pressure on girls to be in competition with each other. And so really that’s one of the things that we’re exploring in the play.”
Teale has a fourteen-year-old daughter with her husband, theatre and film director Ian Rickson, so she knows what’s she’s talking about. She’s also no stranger to adapting the lives and works of figures known for their imaginative inner worlds.
As one half of theatre company Shared Experience (with fellow director Nancy Meckler) Teale has had a hand in an impressive back catalogue of literary adaptations including Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss and The Magic Toyshop as well as plays focusing on the lives of the Brontës, Mary Shelley and most notably Wide Sargasso Sea author Jean Rhys in After Mrs Rochester, written and directed by Teale. “I think that the reason novels offer themselves up and prove to be such rich pickings is that often the power of a good novel is that it allows you to really get inside somebody’s head, almost see through their eyes, experiencing as if you’re inside their skin. And so I think that’s why they prove to be so interesting for us.”
In that case, a traditional fairy tale is new ground for Shared Experience. “With a fairy story what you get is something very skeletal and often it’s not actually very psychologically complex. What you tend to get are these kind of archetypes or very simple characters that embody certain qualities and so actually the job here has almost been the opposite. You have to create characters that feel complex and rich and not just two dimensional.”
So why The Little Mermaid in particular? Teale first encountered the story not in a book, but on a record her family owned. “I’d listen to it on the sofa, and I can remember sobbing at the end of the story, and it wasn’t until a long time afterwards that I started to think: what was it about that story? Why was I so captivated by it? Of course at the centre of it you have this very dark image of this mermaid who has to have her tongue cut out in order to gain legs and then walk. I suppose that idea that the only way she can win the love of the prince is by being beautiful – she can’t use her thoughts or her voice, she has to be this beautiful thing – that I think was a very powerful idea and perhaps in some way as a young girl I recognised there was some truth in that.”
This realisation is especially harsh for the heroine of Teale’s adaptation. “In our version of the story the world beneath the ocean is very like the early years of childhood, so there are no mirrors, so the mermaids don’t even know what they look like, they’re more like animals, and there’s no time either so it’s not ‘til they come up and break the surface of the ocean that they see our world and they also realise that they can be seen and that changes everything. And it’s in that same moment that she sees the prince and she falls in love with him, and so it is about that period in puberty where all these powerful, complicated feelings start to erupt and at the centre of it you have this big love story, and I suppose something that everyone can identify with is this longing for a spiritual union with another human being.”
It would seem the light and dark of this difficult fairy tale are as hauntingly universal as ever.
Mermaid will run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 25th – 28th March.