Review: Merlin. Northern Ballet. Nottingham Theatre Royal

Northern Ballet’s world premiere of Merlin explodes onto the Theatre Royal stage like an incandescent firework, a fantastical spectacle of colour and energy. Weaving together the story of the mythical wizard with a modern-day approach to story-telling through classical ballet, Northern Ballet create something absolutely magical.

The stunning visuals of the set, costumes and lighting combine to create a blaze of colour and richness like an illustrated medieval manuscript or one of those enchanting Victorian fairy-tale books, with detailed, romanticised drawings embellished with gold leaf, come to life.

Colin Richmond’s set design is absolutely stunning. Using a simple palette of gold and black, he provides a series of frames in which the action unfolds. Layered onto this are a series of flies and moving pieces which illustrate palace, forest or battleground. One monumental montage of a tree burning with nature’s magic is breath taking.

Richmond is also responsible for costume design, and using a restrained colour scheme of mustard and teal, creates shapes which feel at once both medieval and modern.  Flared skirts and gold ribboning contrast with half-sleeves and darkest velvets to create a lavish feel.  Anna Watson’s lighting design superbly works in tandem, bringing focus and drama within this, and swiftly changing time and place and atmosphere.

The luscious score by Grant Olding works hand in glove with the dance. It is fascinating to wonder which came first, and how the two artists worked together, for both are masterpieces in their own right.  The 27-piece Northern Ballet Sinfonia relish the huge contrasts in the music, from crashing brass and booming drums for the military scenes to the glittering peal of a harp evoking an underwater world. Conductor Jonathan Lo leads them with great energy and focus, and the result is a monumental success.

Merlin is probably best known as an ancient wizard, but this story follows his youth and early manhood. Merlin is born from the union of two Gods but is raised on earth by a Blacksmith. It is the loving concern and care in these relationships that ultimately guides Merlin to harness his powers and accept himself as he is.

So, the stage is set for the dancers to do their best … And they are given every opportunity in Drew McOnie’s inspiring choreography.  His vision, as Choreographer and Director, is to produce something for families about families, and despite the mythical storyline, his direction is grounded and inclusive. Merlin is just a teenage boy, awkward and trying to find his way – he contrasts with the magical world through his relaxed pose and very human facial expressions. Kevin Poeung is highly skilled in presenting this without caricature but with a great feeling of the freshness and curiosity of youth.

Morgan, senior soldier in the King’s army, is ambitious and power-hungry. Antoinette Brooks-Daw is scintillating in this role. From fierce fighter, a rapier of speed and strength, to magnetic seductress, she is challenged to use every tool in her dancer’s repertoire to interpret the demanding choreography.

Lorenzo Trossello as Uther and Rachael Gillespie as Ygraine provide a more traditional image of thwarted young lovers, and their movements are correspondingly more classical. Yet, each of them is also given a modern twist, Uther being a rag-doll under Morgan’s spell, and Ygraine playing mischievously in a sparkling bath. Both are an utter delight to watch.

Minju Kang is the Blacksmith – an understated role that requires subtlety of interpretation and expression, and she brings great warmth to it. So, not only are they highly skilled dancers but sensitive actors also. The cast, from principals to ensemble, are entirely focussed and in the moment, and a wonderfully diverse group to boot.

The story of Merlin requires magic – and Chris Fisher provides this in the form of illusions.  From blazing swords to dancing stars and blooming lotuses, these are superbly handled, never becoming predictable or overdone.  And to further enhance the family appeal, there are thrilling puppets. A fire-breathing dragon who is tamed by Merlin’s kindness raises a smile throughout the audience. These elements add the final flourishes to an outstanding production.

This production of Merlin by Northern Ballet is a breath taking, dramatic and enchanting interpretation of the ancient tale. Beside the drama, there is light relief, and at all times it is a joy to behold. It’s dazzling combination of creative talents have produced something world class, and every dancer, creative and member of the production team should be incredibly proud. It is an absolute privilege to be part of it’s first night. This is one fairy-tale that will stay with me forever after.

Northern Ballet’s Merlin runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until 2nd October 2021

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