A tale of forbidden love: Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
October 22, 2022

Modern adaptations of traditional fairytales tend to vary quite a bit from the original. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. By telling them differently, it’s possible to neatly sidestep attitudes, norms and values that may have been fine at the time of writing, but that are not so today. It also allows today’s presenters to reach a broader audience. Having said that, David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid for Northern Ballet is a lot closer to Hans Christian Andersen that it is to Disney.

It certainly looks splendid. The opening underwater scene with its hints of marine greens and blues shimmers beautifully. Shafts of sunlight pierce what you imagine to be crystal clear waters. At the heart of everything is Kimie Nakano’s two-part set that looks part giant shell, part pair of rock pinnacles, part underwater cave, and that later very neatly transforms into the bow of the Prince’s ship and palace walls. Around it ‘swim’ colourful fish on poles and jellyfish, the latter especially clever.

Sally Beamish’s score is equally pleasant. There are no really memorable tunes but, with its hints of Celtic folk music, it’s a world away from the harsh music modern composers seem to enjoy foisting on audiences. It supports the drama perfectly, picking up the ballet’s themes of sea, song and unanswered, doomed love. The lament heard at the heart-breaking moment when the Little Mermaid, or Marilla as Nixon calls her (it means ‘shining sea’) realises her love will never be returned is deeply moving.

Northern Ballet in The Little Mermaid
Photo Kyle Baines

Nixon’s choreography is polite and restrained, although perhaps just a little too safe. He gets round the fact that mermaids have tails not legs by having Marilla (Saeka Shirai) and her sisters Edina and Evelina (Miki Akuta and Dominique Larose) ‘dance’ carried by members of the corps. They dive and swoop as they ride the underwater currents very gracefully, but there’s not exactly much variation.

Once on land, the excellent Shirai makes it dramatically clear just how isolated Marilla is. As Andersen imagined his mermaid, she is introverted, very quiet and reserved although, having had her voice taken away, she’s unable to explain her story or make herself understood anyway. And that’s before we get to the pain she feels with every step, etched deeply on her whole body, another part of the cost of having legs instead of a tail. She’s quite literally, a fish-out-of-water Fragile barely does it justice.

Her predicament is emphasised by Prince Adair (Joseph Taylor) and his finacée Dana’s (Rachel Gillespie) blindness to her distress. Their freedom of movement, especially in a gorgeous waltz, contrasts starkly with that of Marilla. But it goes deeper still. With her odd mannerisms, the community see Marilla as a curiosity. They look but do not engage. She’s someone to be talked about rather than talked to, even when in her presence. It’s impossible not to draw parallels with how disability is still sometimes seen.

In terms of dancing, it is in Act II that the ballet really comes alive. During the community’s celebration of the summer’s fishing catch, a dance for the men is particularly impressive. Best though is the moment when time stands still as Marilla becomes free and dances with her Prince. It wasn’t just Taylor that Shirai captured with her grace in a pas de deux, as heart-breaking as beautiful because we all knew it was just a dream, one that could never be fulfilled.

How to attract audiences to ballet in the regions is a constantly recurring question. It obviously helps a lot to have a familiar title, but maybe also by giving them shows like The Little Mermaid that are entertaining but that also have depth if you want it. It certainly kept the big Mayflower Theatre audience (at 2,300 seats, it’s one of the biggest venues Northern Ballet visit) enthralled, including the large contingent of youngsters, a number of whom came kitted out as their own version of Marilla. There were a lot of happy faces on the way out; faces that will likely be back.