Drew McOnie
Northern Ballet
Sheffield Lyceum

Javier Torres in Merlin Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Kevin Poeung in Merlin Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Minju Pang in Merlin Credit: Emma Kauldhar

When choreographer Drew McOnie embarked on Merlin, it was important to identify the audience he was playing to. There are very dark aspects to the story of Merlin but Drew’s version is intended to appeal to the whole family and to focus on a central character who eventually comes to terms with his special gift in a journey that leads to self-acceptance.

The opening sequence of the ballet shows the conception and birth of Merlin, the product of a magical union between The Lady of the Lake and Helios the Sun God. In a leap, 18 years pass and the rest of the action occurs when Merlin is 18 years old. Adopted by a Blacksmith who provides him with Excalibur, he has come to maturity in an England at war with itself, the Solar Kingdom against the Kingdom of Tides whose uniforms are respectively the gold of the sun and the blue of the lake.

Merlin becomes a soldier and a witness to political events that include the tyrannical King Vortigern attempting to force his son Uther into a marriage with brave fighter Morgan (later to become the witch Morgan La Fae). But Uther is in love with Ygraine from the Kingdom of Tides and incidentally Merlin has fallen for Morgan who perfidiously drains him of his magic powers. So there is plenty of battle action and love interest to entertain the audience, even more thrilling with the addition of magical effects.

The production is a feast for the eye. Colin Richmond’s sets include an enchanted forest, a lake, a palace with suspended vaulted ceilings and moveable stone archways which represent palace doorways as well as prison corridors and cells. Tall trees almost bare of branches provide hiding places in the forest and a huge Tree of Life is lowered to dominate the stage at significant moments in the action. Clever lighting effects bring the trees to life and help to create the magical events.

A synthesis of choreography, skilled performance by the corps de ballet and beautiful lighting effects combine to produce a truly magical scene in which the Lady of the Lake is seen swimming and diving on the surface of the water as waves move around her. Her feet never touch the ground.

There is humour and delight in the use of puppets designed by Rachael Canning: two fierce barking dogs and a small dragon manipulated by Matthew Koon who communicates ferocity, fear and loving contact with absolute clarity. It is always a thrill to see an accomplished puppeteer at work.

There are exciting performances from the principal dancers to music composed by Grant Olding. Riku Ito is a dynamic Merlin with vigorous high leaps who brings variation to the role in more plangent moments. Minju Kang’s Morgan is a force to be reckoned with, very much in character as the manipulative, ambitious, exploitative witch. Joseph Taylor’s Vortigern is not always a convincing tyrant but strong in his solo performances.

As Uther and Ygrain, Joseph Taylor and Abigail Prudames breathe life into the conflicted lovers and work sensitively together. Prudames has a quality of innocence about her and moves with delicacy and a lightness of foot which reinforces this impression. As the Blacksmith, Alessandra Bramante is a strong and sympathetic character who finds a range of opportunities in her role. Heather Lehan is unforgettable as the swimming, twisting Lady in the lake scene, displaying gymnastic capability as well balletic artistry. She and Sean Bates as Helios effectively occupy their important roles as the Gods who parented Merlin.

This delightful ballet is eminently suitable for family viewing and would be an ideal Christmas treat.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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