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Meow Meow - The Little Mermaid

“The sky is opening up!” says Meow Meow down the line from Australia, where she's just waking up to the sunniest of mornings. The avant cabaret chanteuse, dancer, performance artiste and Edinburgh regular has just been talking about how she feels after coming offstage from her multi media cabaret version of The Little Mermaid, which plays Edinburgh International Festival's late night slot at the Hub this year. She's been talking about feeling part of a higher universe, and the magic of that, all the while looking out of the window as she talks. Her sudden exclamation isn't her being melodramatic, however. Rather, real life has interrupted her reveries in a very fantastical form.

“It's a hot air balloon,” she says as she watches it float through the clear blue sky and past her window. While even she couldn't have planned such an appearance, the drama of it is perfect. “It's as if it's been summonsed from the wings,” she beams.

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid sees the artist formerly known as Melissa Madden Gray performing her own unique take on Hans Christian Anderson's tragic little fairytale. In the story, the mermaid of its title falls in love with a prince, and makes a deal with a witch to be able to walk on land as a human. To do so, she must not only face pain with every step she takes, but must also lose the power to speak.

“The Little Mermaid has always been in my consciousness,” Meow Meow says. “The stories of Hans Christian Anderson were always around when I was growing up. I wouldn't say I was obsessed by it, but I was distressed by the end that there was no guarantee of lasting love. I always felt drastically sad about that, but the story of the Little Mermaid has so many complexities about sexuality and spirituality. There are important things going on there about duty of care, but it's a story that's all about the complexity of self.

“There are loads of ridiculous things going on in there as well about looking for love, and at times it feels like a showgirl's lament. It's about a young girl transforming into adulthood, and there are things there as well about perceived beauty, and whether the mermaid has to give up her voice to find romantic love, and that fuels all kinds of comedy and tragedy. Hans Christian Anderson did this really bizarre thing at the end of the tale, and he tacked on this paragraph to bring in the reader and turn it into this morality tale, so the mermaid is unable to go forward or back, but I think when I first read it I was more taken with how weird it was.”

Disney, then, Meow Meow's The Little Mermaid is not. The production is presented in Edinburgh by the Melbourne based Malthouse Theatre, and is directed by Michael Kantor. At its heart are new compositions by Meow Meow's kindred spirits, Amanda Palmer and Australian singers Kate Miller-Heidke and Megan Washington.

“Mermaids are singers,” she says. “They're sirens, and I have three wonderful sirens who are also three of my best friends writing songs for me. They're all very different writers and composers, so it's a big emotional work-out for me. I can relate it to my own life as a showgirl, and there's something there about the way sirens are portrayed sometimes as femme fatales. It has deep resonances with the idea of being a performer. Is it self-expression? Or is it purgatory? Onstage, I certainly feel wrapped in the arms of the other sirens, so it's certainly not lonely up there. But as a singer and dancer, you're always worrying in case you lose your voice. That's the thing that defines us, and losing that, we'd also lose the thing that makes us loveable.”

There are other things going on in the show beyond Meow Meow's own direct experience.

“When I first spoke with Amanda Palmer about this idea of the mermaid being unable to go forward or back, we were surrounded by these potent images on the TV of refugees at sea, trying to get away from somewhere, and trying to get to somewhere else. I don't want to shove these images in, but it got me thinking about whether this is liberation, or is it a loss of self? There are multiple interpretations you could have, about innocence and guilt, but there's also lots of room for ridiculousness, and if you just want to take it at the level of it being a rollicking entertainment, then that's fine as well, but you do it at your peril.”

Meow Meow has form with such material, having performed a similarly styled take on The Little Matchgirl, which she brought to London in 2012. She first came to prominence in the UK performing as part of alternative cabaret night, La Clique, and since winning the short-lived Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Award in 2010, her star has been very much in the ascendant. Within a year she was appearing with Kneehigh Theatre as the Maitresse in Emma Rice's staging of Jacques Demy's 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and has performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal.

At last year's EIF, Meow Meow performed a programme of Weimar cabaret songs with Barry Humphries. This year, she sang with the Berlin Philharmonic, and was reunited with Rice to play the fairy queen Titania in her production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Shakespeare's Globe. At the Brighton Fringe, she presented Souvenir, a new song cycle penned with composers Jherek Bischoff and August Von Trapp. In Liverpool, she took part in the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for the Beatles seminal album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Cub Band. She was Lovely Rita, leading a procession of traffic wardens through the Liverpool streets and graveyards.

Following her Edinburgh stint with her Little Mermaid, Meow Meow will be returning to Malthouse to appear in Black Rider, the junkyard operatic fantasia brought to life by the macabre alliance of Tom Waits and iconic novelist, the late William Burroughs. In December, she is at the Royal Festival Hall with Meow's Pandemonium before she returns to Shakespeare's Globe with Apocalypse Meow: Crisis is Born.

“Sleep is not in my repertoire,” she says.

Given the above, it's about the only thing that isn't.

“I live my life offstage as heightened as I do on,” she says. “But what I love onstage is going between grand passion and getting my fishnets caught on a button and colliding with the real world.”

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid is equally transcendent.

“It sounds naff,” she says, “but it feels like you're flying, and that there's a line between you, the audience and the stars. It's a strange feeling. I remember being sent one of the songs for The Little Mermaid, and I remember it making me feel part of this beautiful shining universe. It feels like I'm being transported back to childhood joy, and it feels like the sky is lifting off. That's what theatre's all about, bringing all that together like that. There's the need for music as well, and that's not an affectation. It's a connection to the heartbeat that makes you feel like a tiny part of the universe, and that's really magical.”

Which is where, right on cue, the balloon outside Meow Meow's window floats into view.

Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, Edinburgh International Festival, The Hub, August 3-27, 10.30pm; August 12, 19, 26, 7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, July 25th 2017

ends

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