Disney it ain’t. Gareth K Vile chats to cabaret star Meow Meow about her subversive take on Hans Christian

Andersen’s The Little Mermaid

T he Little Mermaid might be best known to contemporary audiences through the 1989 animated Disney i lm. Cheerful and guileless, it reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale as a celebration of ‘love without boundaries’ in which the mermaid’s self-sacrii ce brings love and happiness. This saccharine vision has little in common with either Andersen’s story or Meow Meow’s cabaret-inl ected 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 i nd her own interpretation of the mermaid’s adventure, and rescue the 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 l esh, and 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 fairytale a contemporary relevance. 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. To that end, she shuttles between identifying Andersen’s ‘fear of becoming an adult and terror about perfection that it must involve self-mutilation and a lack of fuli llment’ and the modern dilemmas posed by Facebook and its insistence on presenting a version of life that is perfected and happy. Rather, Little Mermaid becomes a place for rel ection, in which ideals of romantic love, spiritual beauty and sacrii ce are measured against real experience.

She points out that, although the mermaid is i rmly associated with romantic exoticism, the love she experiences leads her to exchange her voice to be able to walk on land, a striking metaphor for the exclusion of women’s experience. ‘She gives up the thing that dei nes her in order to dance for the prince and maybe win his love. 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-sacrii ce 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 inl uences, 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 dei ned love, the troubadours and poets have ‘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 Disneyi cation, it is a counterblast against simplistic materialism.

Nevertheless, Meow Meow’s discussion of the ideas behind the show does not take into account the witty, l irtatious 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 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 inl uential 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 fairytales for an adult confrontation with changing ideals, without descending into moralising or misery. It’s a rare performance whose ambition matches 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), £15–£32. Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £12–£26.

3–10 Aug 2017 THE LIST FESTIVAL 37