On the 6th of July, Liana Runcie had the opportunity to ask Poppy some questions about Metta's Little Mermaid. We share those here.
Liana: So the first question I had when I was thinking about the Little Mermaid was, specifically the Sea Witch character, and the choice to cast the Witch figure with someone who is male presenting. I’m wondering how you navigated that.
Poppy: There’s a really rich tradition and history in the UK of pantomime and dame where men play female characters where they don’t quite deny their masculine traits. So we had an interesting opportunity to play with that.
L: In relation to that, there is constant gender fluidity throughout the show be it the sea witch or the mermaids…
P: So that’s a bigger thing for the Mermaid sisters, when we began developing the show a lot of what we do is reimagine and re-appropriate stories to either re-gender the protagonist so they become what would traditionally be considered female presenting or if they’re already female presenting protagonist to give them better agency. So when we started we were interested in exploring the binary-the world beneath the sea being a feminine world and the world on land being a masculine land. As the process went on that felt increasingly unhelpful but also outdated to be re-enforcing a gender binary so the new reality became the world of sea was a fluid world so the idea of being mer- is a bit like being non-binary or gender nonconforming. And the world on land was an incredibly binary world which is why it kind of has a 1950s aesthetic so the women are incredibly feminine and the men are incredibly masculine and all of the values that go around with that and even the body shapes. So that was the two universes we were interested in exploring. So then the mermaid sisters/the mer people present in a variety of ways and sorta the idea of being mer- is you can be anything. It’s a self identifying reality.
L: So the actual plot of the Little Mermaid, or at least the one most people are familiar with-
P: Yeah, Disney.
L: Disney’s yes-is one in which a woman very literally gives up her voice to be with a man. So I’m wondering what it was like to work through that process with that plot.
P: Yeah, that’s a common feature of stories. Woman is required to make sacrifice to be with man. She makes sacrifice. She is with man-sorta happy ever after. Some aspects of the plot you can’t have the story without them. So we did honour that. And the way we navigated our way through that was to re-address the balance so that he also has to make a physical sacrifice. So we it was equal. Which made it feel more mutual.
L: I’m interested in the part of Little Mermaid in the context of modern day feminine that addresses hyper-masculinity.
P: It’s interesting and a little bit sad that on tour a lot of people came and afterwards said, “I wish I brought my boys to this as well.” But I think a lot of people think the Little Mermaid as a story for girls. Part of the again countering the historically problematic narrative of girls are like this and behave like this, and boys are like this and behave like this, we wanted to create the prince as someone that was in some ways kind of feminine and unconfident about certain things and his father as a sort of traditional idea of hyper-masculinity who he (the prince) is rubbing up against and unable to navigate through. The narrative that you can be a boy and a man in different ways and it doesn’t have to be a toxic masculinity macho thing is as important as showing girls can be independent and have agency. So there was sort of a jewel reimagining of both stories to achieve that.
L: As someone who makes theatre that includes children, I’m wondering what you want parents to take away from this show.
P: A lot f the work that we do is family appropriate. Of course these are stories children know and love so of course a lot of the audience is going to be families but equally the circus is virtuosic and fantastic and the music is deeply emotional and our take on the stories are really political so there’s always more adult or sophisticated layers and complexity to the work- and hopefully-I mean the way we try to make it is so that you could come as a three year old and you’d get a visually stunning sensory experience. You could come as an eight year old and see yourself reflected in a way that feels very empowering even if you’re not really able to articulate what that means as an eight year old. You could come as a fifteen year old and see a process of discovering your identity and how that’s navigated. Or you could come as a thirty year old out for an amazing night of circus or interested in the politics and gender. You could come as an eighty five year old for the music or for the politics. So there are layers and layers and layers and if any of those layers don’t resonate with you it’ll will wash over you. That’s those truths, those questions, those provocations, are there if your prepared to read between the lines and fill in the gaps with the symbolism and the metaphors and the politics.
L: So obviously, Metta Theatre chose to put on the Little Mermaid. So I’m wondering what about this story intrigues you. Why this plot?
P: Classic, big, well loved stories have a broader reach and actually as political theatre creators we don’t want to be preaching to the converted. So actually taking those massively recognisable tales and recreating, reimaging, reframing them means we can reach a much larger audience which means we can affect and change a much larger audience. And that feels exciting. But also for mermaid specifically. I mean, I’m a romantic at heart and if you really strip back the problematic misogyny and all that, there is a really beautiful story about the power of love and we take it further. And it’s not just about romantic love, it’s about sisterly love, and maternal love and it feels really important to me to tell those stories right now when there's not a lot of love in the world.
L: Do you think the Little Mermaid is a feminist?
P: Interesting. In our version-definitely. But I mean not necessarily consciously. Particularly because we made this choice that the world under the sea is a very fluid and progressive and accepting place-but I think if you took our Little Mermaid and plonked her down in the city today then in terms of her beliefs and her values and her willingness to speak her mind and make some changes or go out and know what she wants and go and get it then yeah 100%.