North East & YorkshireReview

Northern Ballet: Merlin – Sheffield Lyceum

Reviewer: Ruth Jepson

Director and Choreographer: Drew McOnie

Composer: Grant Olding

Everyone knows about the sword in the stone and King Arthur and his famous round table, but what about the early life of his magical adviser? Very little it can be imagined. Merlin, the newest production from Northern Ballet, seeks to readdress this. The story is an original one, and depicts the birth of Merlin (Riku Ito) to deities Helios (Sean Bates) and The Lady of the Lake (Heather Lehan), his adoption by a Blacksmith (Allessandra Bramante), and eventual time as soldier for The Solar Kingdom, serving under General Morgan (Minju Kang) in a war against The Kingdom of Tides. Along the way he discovers his magical abilities, befriends a dragon and facilitates a blossoming, forbidden relationship between young royals from either side, endangering himself in the process.

The plot is easy enough to work out from the ballet alone, but for a more in depth discussion buying a programme gives a full run down of who is who and what is going on. The easy to follow story would make this show a good one for older children, or newcomers to ballet, who will also be entranced by the gorgeous design and beautiful choreography. Kang’s Morgan is a joy to watch as she progresses from general to sorcerous Morgan La Fae, her body and face clearly depicting the emotional toil and jealous desire that embodies the character. And the scene of The Lady of the Lake conjuring visions for Merlin is a feat of human engineering as the chorus dancers become water for Lehan to swim through, never touching the ground and yet dancing in a way which is simply breath-taking. Mention must also be made of wonderful dragon puppet, controlled expertly by Matthew Koon to the point where the puppeteer disappears almost entirely. Rachel Canning’s design for the puppet deserves wild praise.

The dancing is underpinned by a score by Grant Olding that would not be out of place in an epic fantasy a la Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. The set and costumes designed by Colin Richmond give a clear medieval vibe, but also bring in elements of steam punk to the set and Asian culture in the costumes, particularly nice to see when a large number of the cast are of Asian heritage. The costumes are beautifully eye-catching (and not just because of Helio’s Labyrinth Bowie style leggings). There is however a slight disconnect between the design elements at times, the most jarring being the mesh and tin foil looking forest trees which feel thrown together and unfinished when compared to the slickness of everything else, and especially when one of the larger set pieces is a tree in the same style but with so much more detail and finesse. It would perhaps have been better to go all in on the steam punk elements, bringing that into the wider design, or to lean further towards the more classic design of the costumes and smaller set pieces. The less said about Excalibur as a “light sabre” the better (although the use of LED lighting is an excellent way to portray magic on stage so this can be forgiven).

Overall, Merlin is a wonderful imagining of the early life of its titular character, and feels very much at home within the folk tale canon. Prepare to sit back and be spellbound.

Runs until November 6th 2021

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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