Lucy Ayrton: The Splitting of the Mermaid
Underbelly, Venue 61, 56 Cowgate
August 15-24, 5:20-6:20pm
Review: Phoebe Walker
When you’re asked to picture a mermaid, a few too many of us are probably guilty of beaming up a picture of the red-haired, thyroid-eyed, Disneyfied creation, complete with singing crustaceans and a happy-ever-after ending. Lucy Ayrton’s performance of her version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale will wipe all images of Ariel and Flounder out of your head; Ayrton offers us an emphatically feminist version of the tale that avoids all the potentially obvious or clamorous points an interpretation might make. Set under the almost permanently leaden skies of Hull, this is a dark, bewitching creation, and a superb piece of storytelling. Feminist takes on fairy tales inevitably bring to mind the brilliant, bloody work of Angela Carter, but Ayrton fashions something entirely new, retaining the darkness of Christian Andersen’s tale, but steering away from the spiky, gore-strewn narrative that we’ve perhaps come to associate with the modern fable.
The sparseness of Ayrton’s stage reflects just how much this is her creation; the barest elements of the mermaid fable are there, but throughout it is Ayrton’s own style and her story that is being told as she moves expressively across the stage, her long plait of hair swinging. The underwater world is portrayed with a whiff of dystopia; mermaids are not allowed to raise their own children but have to deposit their eggs in a kind of spawning field, which leads one mermaid, May, to make a desperate bargain with a sea witch so that she can go to the human world and bear her own child. Here begins the ‘splitting of the mermaid’, which Ayrton, both in language and body, conveys with powerful, shuddering force. May, washed up on a beach in Hull faces the grim reality of the upper world; a brief fling on a beach, as per the sea witch’s instructions, leaves her with the pregnancy she so desired, but life on earth is cruel. She wanders, starving, through the streets, eating cast away bits of battered cod, slicing her feet open on broken glass. Mike and Dave, two men who go on to play serious roles in May’s life on earth, are well-conveyed by Ayrton, who has their gruff voices, heavy, careless movements and playful shouts of “dickhead” down to a T.
The ending is both sorrowful and hopeful, an admission of impossibility but also a cautiously optimistic reading of the future. Ayrton’s ability to create a story of, at times, almost unbearable sadness and poignancy without ever falling into the traps of mawkishness or melodrama is truly impressive. Her skills as a wordsmith are obvious; the language of ‘Splitting’ flows rhythmically, veering from sections of pure poetry to humour, the bathos of Mike and Dave’s dialogue to May’s voiceless anguish. Some of Ayrton’s rhymes are occasionally a little too conspicuous, but overall the story is seamlessly told, matched by the quick-flit of feelings across Ayrton’s face as a salacious grin gives way to spasms of pain. This is a fairytale told with utter conviction, a painfully exhilarating immersion into worlds above and beneath.