Pop culture and puberty come together in surreal show

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Pop culture and puberty come together in surreal show

By Kerrie O'Brien

“Teenage girls are reviewed all the time,” says 17-year-old Casper Plum, a performer in The Mermaid at La Mama. Young women today are constantly defined and judged by their appearence, their likes on social media.

An Dang, Allegra Di Lallo, Frankie Willcox and Ella Simonds in The Mermaid at La Mama

An Dang, Allegra Di Lallo, Frankie Willcox and Ella Simonds in The Mermaid at La MamaCredit:Pier Carthew

But does that mean you need to adapt in response? Like the Little Mermaid in the old Danish folk tale, is the pain of change a necessary part of fitting in and finding love?

The show is coming-of-age story written and performed by teenagers, staged at La Mama this week (it opened just before lockdown 5 hit). ‘Eshays’ and TikTok, TV shows, pop stars, politics and climate change are all referenced in the script, which replaces the old “damsel in distress” trope with a queer, feminist tragedy.

Director Cassandra Fumi was keen to adapt The Little Mermaid, a story about a female character who is saved by a prince. “It was always told by adults and I wondered how it would look when we threw it at teenagers.”

Also inspired by a documentary about mermaiding – where people get dressed up as a mermaid – she saw potential in using the old fairy tale as a metaphor. “In a world where we feel so powerless, there’s something so powerful about being this mythical figure … you are able to feel this strength,” says Fumi. “Even though our character of the mermaid does get obliterated, there’s something about the ocean and the grandness and the fantasy. I think at the moment, we do need to feel powerful.”

Cast member An Dang says because there are so many versions of the Little Mermaid story, and people all round the world have grown up with it, it works as a universal starting point. But she questions its relevance to kids today. “Especially the Disney version, is this really what we should be growing up with? We all had this show as our coming-of-age story. In the Disney version, the Little Mermaid is a damsel in distress, and she is saved by the prince. [The play] recognises that stereotypical role and starts to change that view.”

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For Ella Simons, the Disney story is fundamentally flawed – it suggests you are nothing unless you are with someone. “What we wanted is to create something more fluid and more grey and the spaces in between. [The Mermaid] sits with her sisters and wants to know about the world,” she says.

The Mermaid, the adapted play, references pop culture such as Australian fantasy TV drama H2O, as well as character types. “My character is kind of like an eshay – eshays are known as these ratty guys who don’t respect boundaries,” says Plum, who says he’s had a lot of messages from people saying they can relate to it.

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Each act begins with an opening monologue by a different actor; topics range from Coney Island and Sofia Coppola (Theo Boltman) to Taylor Swift, Zoom stocks and climate change (Simons).

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Improvisation was part of the show’s development and the teenagers were involved in everything from the storyline and dialogue through to costumes. Plum created his character, the prince, when “someone put a song on and Theo and I started walking around and going ‘Yeah wassup dude’, playing off the dude/bro situation ... he doesn’t need to be the centre of how a woman finds meaning for herself”.

After the most recent staging of the show, Plum was sent some fan-art based on his character.

“That’s one of the big things about this process, it’s about community, this deep, genuine care for each other,” says Fumi. “It has radicalised my practice ... Pop culture and puberty and boys and loneliness: all these things have come together to create this surreal, absurd, heightened piece of theatre.”

Boltman was 12 when they started working on the play; they are about to turn 16. “There are so many shows about teenagers written by 40- or 50-year-olds. This is created by us, about us.”

Dang agrees. “There’s no one moral, no one thing we want you to take away. It shows how complex young adulthood is.“

The Mermaid is at La Mama from July 28-August 1.

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