After the dark months, the reopening of theatres needed to come with a touch of magic and what finer name is there to conjure the illusion of theatrical wizardry than Merlin, the benevolent sorcerer behind the Arthurian legend.
It seems like only yesterday that we were watching Drew McOnie perform in So You Think You Can Dance (his duet with Hayley Newton to Lady Gaga’s Speechless is still indelibly etched in my memory) but in the intervening years McOnie has carved out a stellar reputation as a director/choreographer in the world of musical theatre, winning awards and gaining critical acclaim for shows such as In the Heights, Strictly Ballroom and On the Town.
So, kudos to Northern Ballet for bringing the skills and imagination of McOnie and his creative team to bear on a full-length ballet and on the strength of this world premiere in the East Midlands party city of Nottingham they have landed a show that is a stunning visual spectacle for young and old alike. Colin Richmond’s set and costume designs have a rich colour palette of gold, ochre and bronze, which naturally evokes the imagery of a right royal pre-medieval court replete with illusions of folklore and legend, including a magical proscenium-filling tree, a golden orb which transports the baby Merlin to earth and a suitably-enchanted Excalibur, which appeared as red-hot metal whenever Merlin’s ire was aroused. All this was ably assisted by Rachael Canning’s puppetry, which produced a pair of snarling dogs and a wonderfully-animated dragon (courtesy of Ashley Dixon’s dragon-handling skills) complete with wagging tail and smoke-emitting nostrils.
The original music from the prolific theatre composer, Grant Olding, was another strange beast: a new score for a full-length ballet that was not a turkey but instead soared with instant enjoyment and memorable descriptive passages. It made such a difference to hear the orchestra playing live, albeit cocooned in a pit covered by nylon mesh, conducted with admirable pace and clarity by Jonathan Lo. Incidentally, it is also worth noting that Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has a wicked rake, which must have caused some localised choreographic refinement!
McOnie’s choreography and direction brought a pacy momentum to the work and scene transitions in both acts were achieved seamlessly (the dancers unobtrusively acting as set-shifters) and he has a fine sense of blending a rich mix of consecutive dances, from the unity of the corps, with lots of harmonious jumps and intricate patterns of movement, to passionate pas de deux performed with tenderness and big presage lifts. His choreography for the several fight scenes was especially dramatic, bringing a diverse range of movement that seemed more real than cartoon (the latter being so often the case).
The downside is that this is a big story with at least ten main characters and several dramatic plot twists, and I strongly recommend reading the lengthy programme synopsis prior to seeing the show, since it is easy to get confused without such preparation. I found the first act to be especially convoluted and had no idea about the purpose of some characters until enlightened by a rushed reading of the programme in the interval. However, there is no lack of clarity in the title role, which Kevin Poeung performs with a strong mix of emotions, from the shy and belittled young man who is rather ashamed of his enormous sword, to his battlefield elevation to becoming a vengeful slayer and ultimately a force for unity and peace between the warring kingdoms.
Antoinette Brooks-Daw stole her scenes as the warrior General, Morgan, with a magnetic presence. When she was victorious in the Tournament of Champions her fighting predominance is utterly believable. She was the most appealing “bad” character that I have seen in a long while! Minju Kang brought a counter-intuitive mix of vulnerability and protectiveness to her role as the Blacksmith (Merlin’s guardian) and one must applaud McOnie’s defiance of traditional gender norms in his casting decisions, having both the toughest warrior and the blacksmith portrayed by women.
Javier Torres wore the crown well as the ruthless King Vortigern; and Abigail Prudames brought a suitably ethereal charm to the Lady of the Lake. The names of Uther (Lorenzo Trossello) and Ygraine (Rachael Gillespie) may be familiar as the lovers from across the divide of two kingdoms and when the latter discovers that she is pregnant (a charming scene of bathroom glitter) we know that the future King Arthur has been conceived. Merlin drives Excalibur into the ground by the enchanted tree and, as one story ends, another is about to begin.