Theatre Royal, Nottingham
September 25, 2021
Whatever else you might think, Drew McOnie’s new Merlin for Northern Ballet is certainly a visual treat. From the simple home and forge of the Blacksmith who originally found him as a helpless baby, to the beautiful vaulted hall of Camelot, Colin Richmond’s set designs are fabulous. Representations of trees on full height wire supports that glide across the stage brilliantly evoke a forest and travel through it, although the absolute highlight is undoubtedly a huge tree with a vein-like creeper growing up it that spans the whole stage. It’s into this (rather than a stone) that Merlin eventually plunges Excalibur.
There’s magical special effects and puppetry too. Merlin actually first appears as a hovering golden ball. Later, a glowing Excalibur hangs above the stage. But what everyone will remember and fall for is the dragon. Designed by Rachael Canning and brilliantly brought to life by its handler Ashley Dixon (is that the best use of a principal soloist, even if it is a great skill to have?), the green-scaled, red-eyed, nostril smoking creation really is very lifelike. It also snaps quite aggressively before becoming friends with Merlin, although it does then become a bit too cutsy and puppy dog-ish for my tastes.
Merlin is McOnie’s first full-length ballet. If we are being honest, it shows. On one level, it’s a simple story: that of a young man understanding his ‘different-ness’ and coming to terms with it, not unlike himself, as he notes in the programme. On another, it is a quite complicated narrative with a great deal of detail and a lot of characters along the way; and that is where things start to fall down.
The big problem is not the amount of story, however, but the Formula 1 speed at which everything is taken, the opening scene in the Blacksmith’s home excepted. Scenes race past with little chance to catch breath. Not only does that mean the narrative is difficult to follow, it means that any sense of intimacy hoped for doesn’t stand a chance.
Merlin is a sort of collision of West End musicals and classical ballet. Given McOnie’s background, that’s probably to be expected. The story has been Disney-fied, presumably to make it family friendly (the period in which the Merlin and Arthur legends is set was actually very dark), but even Disney understands that, for a story to work, audiences have to emote one way or the other with its characters. That’s made extra difficult when there are almost no solo dances and no pas de deux of any length, as here.
We do get to know Merlin and the Blacksmith, though, and Kevin Poeung is superb in the lead role. When we first meet him as the 18-year-old future wizard, he’s just the everyday slightly awkward, somewhat recalcitrant, just-a-bit difficult 18-year old, who frustrates his loving adoptive mother as much as you might expect. Later, he looks a surprised as anyone when he unexpectedly wins the Tournament of Champions and leads the army to victory in battle. His dancing is beautiful too: easy and full of clarity and lightness. He’s impossible not to admire.
Equally impossible not to like is Minju Kang as the Blacksmith. In a beautifully understated way, she subtly encapsulates the day-to-day exasperations, frustrations and difficulties of single-handedly bringing up a son. And she clearly loves him, later disguising herself to help him to escape a prison cell.
Of the other characters, Antoinette Brooks-Daw stands tallest as the commanding figure of Morgan. It could have been a truly meaty role but the choreography struggles to give much impression of just how manipulating and scheming she really is.
The choreography also gives few chances for the dancers to show off their classical skills. Indeed, the only out and out classical solos come from two princesses (Heather Lehan and Sarah Chun), although they only appear in the one short scene.
Elsewhere, there is not a single memorable dance. At times, the choreography also seems to be about positions with little thought apparently given to how they are moved between. And McOnie desperately overuses two motifs: a sort of salute with the back of the wrist to the forehead, which I felt like screaming ‘enough’ at; and a sort of unexplained cupping of the hands at the hip.
Grant Olding’s music fits the dance perfectly, although equally has no memorable tunes. The Northern Ballet Orchestra were as superb as always, however; and how nice not to be deafened, even sitting just a couple of metres from them.
Richmond’s costumes are generally as top notch as his sets, his use of mustard and teal feeling simultaneously ancient and modern, although there is a very odd and decidedly not-of-the-period appearance by Merlin in a pair of Elizabethan-style breeches.
Northern Ballet’s corps are excellent, so it’s a shame that they spend much of their time wheeling the set around, or walking around holding props. Besides no big pas de deux, Merlin has no big set pieces with even such as the battle over in a flash. What chances they do get to dance are all too short-lived.
Merlin might be far from perfect. Still, as family-friendly entertainment, it does tick most boxes. But if you want to follow the story, just make sure you read the synopsis first, carefully and slowly.