Writer Liam Sesay uses a variety of storytelling modes to craft an affecting, nuanced depiction of the queer experience using The Little Mermaid as a narrative anchor
Marketed as “a poetic, queer retelling of The Little Mermaid”, Merboy delivers all of this and then some. Everybody knows, of course, the story of The Little Mermaid – or, at least, the cutesy, Disneyfied version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale. Within this, a mermaid longs for a love that is out of reach, separated as she is from the human world. She leaves her old world at sea behind in pursuit of her new life, ultimately ending unloved and alone, dissolving into seafoam.
In Merboy, audiences are introduced to our titular character (Kemi Clarke) at a young age, as he explains in accomplished verse his realisation that he is a merboy and is drawn to the sea. As he grows, he struggles with his level of difference until he learns to embrace it with the help of other merboys. Upon becoming a young adult, he becomes enraptured by a sailor (Anthony Psaila), whose affection he becomes determined to attain. In order to win his love, he seeks out The SeaWitch (Ralph Bogard), who educates Merboy in becoming a sailor, with the dire warning that he will never again be able to return to his life as it was before.
With recent evidence pointing towards the original fairytale being an allegory for Hans Christian Andersen’s forbidden homosexual longing, it is unsurprising that the symbolism of Merboy runs far deeper than this description. The sea is used to represent the queer existence, and being a merboy and living within this space taken to reflect visible queerness – those queer individuals who fall outside of the heteronormative constraints placed upon masculinity. In contrast, sailors – those who walk on land and sea – are those queer individuals who conform to heteronormative society – who are bound by the walls of traditional gender roles.
Within this, Sesay explores the role of shame in shaping a person’s queer experience, not only from society at large, and the pressures of family, but also the pressure that exists within the queer community, pigeon holing individuals into neat boxes.
The use of verse throughout was a nice touch and it really elevated the content of Sesay’s writing: making this a far more powerful story than if it had been told literally. In fact, the verse was so rich and meaningful that it would work beautifully as a novel. This poetic storytelling was enhanced even further through the presence of The Sirens, an imagined trio who lipsynch to 1960s girl band music that nicely echoes and comments upon what is happening in Merboy’s life. Used varyingly for humour and pathos, it does help keep the 80-minute runtime pacy and varied.
Though the imagery of pairing 1960s girl band music with the title The Sirens potentially raises some problematic viewpoints (as Sirens are typically seen to seduce men into the sea to drown them, and the sea here seems to represent queerness), the writing overall feels deeply personal and incredibly nuanced. It could only have been written by a queer individual who had lived the experience. Throughout the narrative, homophobic slurs are interspersed and the societal rhetoric of being gay as a “virus”, and queer people not living as long due to their lifestyle choices still feels like a violent affront and Merboy does well to balance these serious topics with more lighthearted fare.
While mostly the allegory of Merboy’s story reflecting a real-life queer coming of age works, where it falls down is where it hews too closely to the original The Little Mermaid. While it might make sense that somebody would seek out help in order to become “straight passing” due to their internalised gay shame, the whole concept of belonging to the Sea Witch should he fail in his quest stretches the realms of the metaphor somewhat, even though “turning to sea foam” could be interpreted as becoming broken and consumed by one’s self hatred. There was also a section involving a fox which felt like one metaphor too far and was a little jarring, even though it was performed ably.
The show is performed brilliantly. Ralph Bogard, Yasmin Dawes and Anthony Psaila double up as both the Sirens and a host of other roles within the piece. Bogard is captivating as the SeaWitch, commanding the space with a brazen sensuality and an overwhelmingly dangerous aura. Dawes is an enthralling lead lipsyncher, delivering brilliant levels of sass and attitude, and also turns in a heartbreaking, visceral performance as Merboy’s Mother in some of the best interactions of the show. Then there is Psaila who is deliciously funny and has a wonderful, highly effective command over his movement.
At the centre of the tale, and definitely the star of the piece is Kemi Clarke. Throughout the show, Merboy goes on an incredible journey, and Clarke successfully charts the peaks and troughs of his journey. He holds the audience in rapt attention and has a tremendous physicality to his performance, not to mention an extraordinary vulnerability to his emotional expression.
Overall, Merboy tells a brilliantly deep tale of battling against societal and internalised shame in order to find true self fulfilment – a message that all audience members, especially queer ones, can get behind.
Merboy is playing at the Omnibus Theatre until 4 March. For more information, click here.