The great thing about retelling archetypal stories on stage is that one leaves space for audience interpretation, which is one of the many joys of making live theatre. Our work is rich in symbolism and layers of storytelling - theatrical poetry, sometimes lyrical, sometimes visual, that's consciously designed to work on many different levels for many different people. One thing we hope is clear to everyone though is that we take the representation of women incredibly seriously, and work tirelessly to ensure that we are not perpetuating problematic imagery or stereotype.
So in Little Mermaid the role of the seawitch provides a challenge. She is the crucial antagonist in the story of the Little Mermaid and her 'villainy' in both the original story and the Disney is a powerful engine for the ensuing drama. But witches are problematic tropes - typically barren, wizened, no longer 'attractive' or sexually active women. Powerful certainly, but often in spite (or perhaps because) of this power banished to the periphery of society - outcasts and hermits exiled to the forest. I wanted to challenge and subvert this trope in a number of ways (just as we subvert the archetypes of mermaid and Prince throughout the show). The name of our company - Metta - comes from a Buddhist word meaning compassion or loving kindness and as audiences of our work have come to recognise there is always compassion, insight and often redemption for the antagonist, 'villain' or most 'damaged' character in a Metta show. The key to this moment feeling like a satisfying dramatic payoff rather than a saccharine moment of forcing everyone to be friends is to find the motivation for the character's challenging behaviour and plant the seeds of that throughout the piece.
Little Mermaid is a story driven by the force of romantic and sexual love. Indeed its no surprise that in the original story Hans Christian Andersen had his protagonist turn into sea foam - god forbid we promote a story of young female sexuality and sexual awakening which doesn't result in female punishment and sacrifice. But this is the twenty first century. In our version the Little Mermaid does experience a physically painful sacrifice to gain legs (and implicitly a vagina - ie the capacity to be sexually active) in an acrobatic sequence of 'menstrual' gymnastic ribbons that transform into the blood red ballet shoes (a reference to another Hans Christian Andersen tale) providing a constant visual reminder of the menstrual act. But importantly the Prince also goes through his own transformation and physical sacrifice - a symbolic acrobatic castration sequence - in order both to be with his true love, and to better express his chosen gender identity in the fluid world of Mer. The finale then becomes an enactment of their sexual union under the sea, told through aerial hoop (and to add a cherry on the cake of sexual awakening the Little Mermaid's Seahorse companion arrives with his three newborn babies (kids sex is OK, it's fine, it's wonderful. Plus you end up with babies).
Crucially mirroring this sexual awakening is the Seawitch subplot. Here are all the spoilers folks. She too is a character of great sexual desire - like her daughter. Yes in our version of the story the Seawitch is the Little Mermaid's mother. She had six daughters by six different fathers, the last of whom (the father of The Little Mermaid) was a mortal man. He jilted her at the alter and with a knowing nod to Miss Havisham this sets her off on a course of emotional breakdown and revenge. In a bid to win him back she sinks to the bottom of the sea to learn magic. But in the silence of the midnight zone (as Blue Planet fans will know - the actual technical name for the bottom of the sea) her voice shrivels so she is left mute. This becomes the key driver of her desire to obtain and keep the Little Mermaid's voice.
All of this comes to a delightfully dramatic climax when the eldest of the 6 Mermaid daughters, and the only one who remembers the true identity of the Seawitch, confronts their mother with her actions. In her self imposed exile in the midnight zone the Seawitch has forgotten that mortal time moves faster than Mer time and so the human man, whose love she is still trying to win back, is now dead and gone. Moved to rage by the torturous pain of this now permanently unrequited love she begins to conjure a sea storm to drown them all. But the Little Mermaid (still in 'human' form and therefore most vulnerable to the storm) is moved to compassion for her mother. She dives into the sea, enters the orbit of her cyr wheel spell and hugs her long estranged mother. One by one her sisters (barring the eldest who cannot so easily forgive the 16 years she has spent as surrogate mother) join the embrace. The cyr wheel stills, the storm is calmed. The seawitch is redeemed and reintegrated by the generosity of her daughter's love. And as an act of reconciliation she performs one final act of magic to transform the Prince so that the lovers can be reunited beneath the waves.
The ambition to tell a story through circus and song - both forms fitted to emotional expression and poetic imagery more than plot dissemination - may mean that not every nuance of the story lands with every single audience member. But if nothing else everyone follows the narrative of estranged mother reunited with her children - it is the most frequent point at which the audience cry. I believe their tears come because in that moment,if we are doing our job right, we have transcended archetype to reach an emotional truth recognisable to an 8 year old or a 108 year old - a truth we tell in myriad ways through the show. Love wins.