Bear Pit Theatre’s The Mermaid of Zennor opens promisingly enough as, in the cold aqua blue light of the empty stage, a faceless creature made of delicate fabric and rope swims through the air to the accompaniment of an eerie melody, sung with haunting sincerity by her puppeteer and eventual human incarnation, Jude Mack. Based on an ancient Cornish myth, this devised tale certainly has an intriguing, if familiar, premise: a mermaid longs to be human, but the consummation of such a desire must come at a devastating cost. She first enchants, then makes enemies in a town of God-fearing, sea-faring folk who eventually demand utter conformity with their way of life – or else. Unfortunately, this unsatisfying production soon proves itself similarly incapable of any wish-fulfilment.
Perhaps the central flaw of the The Mermaid of Zennor is that it falls rather too whole-heartedly into the trap of populating Zennor with painfully stereotyped Cornish simpletons who apparently have only two interests between the dozen of them – staring at the sea and a habitual mistrust of outsiders. The large cast work well together to produce some immersing soundscapes but, when it comes to the required Cornish lilt, unwelcome appearances are soon made by Cockney, Irish, Scottish and many an untraceable accent in between. The greatest loss here is that of the story as the company struggle with pronunciation and, consequently, any significant commitment to the narrative significance of their lines. This neglect of the text is a genuine shame, as the language of the play is very often lyrical and compelling, conjuring a bygone world of splendour and strangeness that the stage images can never quite match.
The real strength of the production relies on its use of songs performed a cappella and with an endearing rawness that evokes the sense of an untameable, unknowable sea far better than the generally unspectacular physical theatre. Even the initially striking use of puppetry soon loses power as there emerges a lack of connection between the mermaid and her puppeteer. Without the sense of identification that the puppeteer’s emotional investment creates, the puppet becomes a rather showy theatrical device rather than a necessary one.
Nevertheless, there are moments of accomplishment. An enjoyable montage scene makes clever use of the simple set to show idle gossip about the strange newcomer spreading from villager to villager before erupting into malicious slander and uncontrolled resentment. In the penultimate scene, an affecting naturalistic performance from Georgia Edkins, as a mother whose love for her mermaid-worshipping son borders on the obsessive, reclaims some of the story’s emotional resonance and Miriam Harris also shows promise as the embittered wise woman, Morwenna.
By the end, the production’s inconsistent mythology and odd directorial choices raise too many perplexing questions, and the message, if there is one, is unclear. Perhaps the tale stands as an fairly weak allegory for sexual liberation, the suggestion being that since the mermaid’s arrival, the women of the village (including, bizarrely, the vicar’s wife) begin feeling rather more frisky – but whether this is to be celebrated or condemned is left awkwardly unaddressed. The legend might have been used more innovatively as a relevant warning against prejudice, but instead the production falls back on tired and potentially offensive cliché as the congregation of pious Zennor villagers inexplicably transform into a Wicker Man-esque cult to forcibly perform a confirmation with a strange and possibly unintentional undertone of sexual violence. The final song, a soulful elegy performed with dedication by the mourning mother, is another final reminder of The Mermaid of Zennor’s untapped potential, but one that comes, disappointingly, a little too late.
** – 2/5 stars
The Mermaid of Zennor is playing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival at C venues until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.