Adapting The Little Mermaid, by playwright Joel Horwood

Having written for Skins, BBC Radio 4 and others, Joel Horwood has a rather impressive list of plays and television shows under his belt. He’s also been involved in the Lyric Hammersmith’s recent ground-breaking season of Secret Theatre and has worked with the Almeida, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Royal Court and more. Finally we’ve lured him to Bristol to write our Christmas production The Little Mermaid and we pinned him down to pick his brains about adapting Andersen’s tale…

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Adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid carries a weight of responsibility. Responsibility to those who know and love the original, responsibility to justify the story in its new context; but above all, adapting The Little Mermaid carries a responsibility to Andersen himself.

Andersen was deeply connected to his stories. Not only was he famed for his own readings of his stories, often accompanied by a performance of expert paper cutting, but when he achieved fame he wrote about his own life as if it were a work of fiction. Facts were massaged, the language contained an element of the magical and two of his three autobiographies contain the word ‘fairytale’ in the title. He famously said ‘I suffer with my characters’ and perhaps in his Little Mermaid this is more true than most.

Widely read as an encrypted howl of a love letter to Edvard Collins, the unrequited love of his life, Andersen’s Mermaid is never able to articulate her love. The Little Mermaid has also been compared to Andersen’s own journey from rural Denmark to seek his fortune in the metropolitan bustle of Copenhagen. As Maria Tatar explains, his ‘downtrodden protagonists often emerge triumphant after enduring seemingly endless humiliations’. His swans begin life as ugly ducklings, his tin soldiers voyage little leagues in pursuit of destructive love but perhaps none of them suffer as greatly as Andersen’s little mermaid. Whatever the genesis of the tale, since its publication in 1837, it has inspired adaptations. Operas, ballets, authors as wide ranging as HG Wells and Oscar Wilde, and perhaps most famously a 1989 Disney adaptation with a genius score by the great Alan Menkin. Andersen’s protagonist is a hero of hopeless and impossible desire, prepared to suffer for what she wants.

Listed by UNESCO as one of the ‘top ten’ most translated authors of all time, Andersen is without doubt a great storyteller. By starting his mermaid’s tale underwater, his readers must consider our world from the outside, inviting us to see the mundane as mysteriously and wondrously as his protagonist does. Power and powerlessness, justice and injustice reverberate through his story. His little mermaid grapples with and strives for agency and justice; themes that have always resonated deeply with all ages but perhaps most vibrantly with young people.

In writing the adaptation, I tried to honour themes of voicelessness and disempowerment, adolescence and adulthood, but above all, I’ve tried to honour Andersen’s theme of love. Not just the burning, obsessional love between a mermaid and a human, but also Andersen’s love of humanity, his fascination with the human world, and his love of the communal act of storytelling itself. Within the tale itself grandmothers tell stories to grandchildren, sisters to sisters, townsfolk to townsfolk and in the final coda of Andersen reveals himself as the storyteller. His coda, full of nineteenth century parenting and ‘good behaviour’ blackmail, feels to me to be full of the inarticulate but beautifully unconditional love between those who read aloud and those who listen to stories.

I hope that our version of Andersen’s timeless fairytale goes some way to including, riffing on and playing with these themes. I hope that that he would have enjoyed our version and I hope you will too.

The Little Mermaid runs at Bristol Old Vic from 28 Nov-18 Jan. Find out more here.

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