Northern Ballet’s Merlin

Reviewing this Ballet is like trying to capture a beautiful landscape, but the photo just doesn’t do it justice no matter how hard I try. Being there and seeing it with your own eyes is so much better.

Northern Ballet’s Merlin is quite simply magical (and aptly named) and anyone who’s lost their sparkle over the last few difficult years should definitely come and see this. You’ll be smiling from within.

The story has everything – lust, love, magic, jealousy, wars, gods; even dragons. Merlin is the son of two gods, the Lady of the Lake and Helios the sun God, who falls to earth in an orb where he is adopted by a blacksmith and brought up as a mortal. But Merlin grew discontent and frustrated over the years trying to suppress his powers. The blacksmith made weapons for the ‘solar kingdom’ gods and Merlin lusted after Morgan, a senior general, and eventually left the blacksmith with a newly forged sword to join military training in Camelot.

Unlike Morgan, Merlin wasn’t a fighter and struggled in military life. Morgan adored Uther the prince of the solar kingdom but Uther had already fallen in love with Ygraine from the rival gods ‘the kingdom of the tides’. During a battle between the two kingdoms, Merlin loses his temper at thoughts of his abandonment and the power surges through him uncontrollably, killing everyone. Morgan witnessed this power and also took all the glory for winning the battle. Merlin, ashamed, fled to find his true self, guided by his birth parents.

Morgan, high on victory, found out about Uther and Ygraine. Merlin rescued Ygraine from her jealous rage and took her to the blacksmith for safety. Morgan was lost now in her own power and used Merlin, stealing his magic to become a dark, evil witch Morgan La Fae, incarcerating powerless Merlin and bewitching Uther into loving her.

Anyway, it all worked out in the end: the blacksmith rescued Merlin and he regained his beliefs and regained his powers, Morgan was defeated and Uther and Ygraine were once again united and she fell pregnant, creating peace between the two kingdoms.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Kevin Poeung, who played Merlin. No special effects were necessary to be mesmerised by the sheer athleticism of his dance. Antoinette Brooks-Daw was also incredible as Morgan. It must be hard to portray evil when you look so beautiful. All the principal roles were exceptional. I did appreciate the contrast in the three strong females: Morgan the warrior, the blacksmith played by Minju Kong, reserved inner strength and Ygraine played by Rachael Gillespie, so feminine.

Rachel Gillespie playing Morgan

Drew McOnie choreographed the Ballet. It always impresses me how by just using dance you can portray really complex stories and emotions and Drew’s choreography did this brilliantly. No wonder he is so sought after. The contrast in dance styles between Morgan leading her army to war and the fluidity of the lady of the lake was stunning. Merlin’s choreography took it even further than the perfect combination of contemporary and traditional complex ballet routines. It added magical elements, literally throughout, in the form of little tricks and incorporated puppetry in the form of dragons (and dogs).

The Ballet was brought to life even more because of the amazing costumes and scenery. The costumes had such a lushness to them, fit for the gods; a mustard/gold versus blue and of course the obligatory black for the true baddies. Clever use of scenery was used throughout – such as the blacksmith’s workshop and the use of tunnels for Merlin’s incarceration; but the real star was a magnificent, magical tree where the lovers met and Excalibur was eventually buried.

No Ballet would be complete without music. Grant Olding was the composer for Merlin, and I really enjoyed the music, which was other-worldly and yet accessible. Experimental music appeals greatly to me. Hearing a sound and wondering what on earth made it is something I really enjoy, so I thought the music was going to be up my street as I listened during the warm-up to what could only be described as a dog’s squeaky toy. Then there was the dark musical accompaniment to Morgan La Fae.

Even after all the applause, of which there was a great deal, there was a playful ending just as the final curtain dropped, which meant we left the theatre with that smile I mentioned earlier firmly in place for our journey home. I am actually coming a second time to see this and I can’t wait, but for those of you who aren’t as lucky as me, I think you might be able to watch this digitally come December 2021.

After David Nixon’s last Ballet as Artistic director of Northern Ballet, and 20 years of his dedication, it will be strange to come to a future Northern Ballet performance without seeing his ‘welcome‘ in the programme. Thank you, David, for many many great productions and you truly did end on a high.

Merlin is at Leeds Grand Theatre – 9 – 20 November.

Photographs provided by Northern Ballet. Feature photograph – Matthew Koon as Merlin.

Ali Wortley

From  muddy fields to plush theatres, Ali is a hardened music festival goer and avid opera and ballet enthusiast.

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