Theatre Review: Northern Ballet - Merlin

Words: Ian Douglas
Monday 27 September 2021
reading time: min, words

Merlin casts a spell in this magical ballet


Merlin is a figure that has preoccupied British lore for centuries. So why not make a ballet around him? Well, director and choreographer Drew McOnie had just that idea. And where better for the prestigious Northern Ballet to hold the world premiere of this new ballet than Nottingham? Where else, indeed.

But clearly, Drew wanted a modern slant to bring relevance to today’s audiences. Merlin maybe a wizard-in-waiting, but he is no fusty character from old-fashioned fairy tales. This Merlin is adopted and struggles to fit in. He is raised by a non-nuclear family, after the lady blacksmith finds a seemingly abandoned baby. So, he is dealing with the consequences of being different and on ‘a quest for self-acceptance,’ to quote the programme. All very inspiring but how does it translate onto stage?


Merlin is a fast-moving production with plenty to engage the eye. The athleticism of the ballerinas and ballerinos is breath-taking. The choreography merges traditional dance with ground breaking moves (one might be reminded of Matthew Bourne). There were even a few gestures reminiscent of Tai Chi, such as rolling the ball.

Kevin Poeung plays Merlin with gusto. As well as his superb dancing, he ably conveys Merlin's emotional journey through facial expression. (There being no dialogue in ballet, of course.)


The set is minimal, but steel strips and wire serve as trees in the Caledonian forest. There is also a Tree of Life that illuminates. Puppetry creates the nostril-smoking dragon and a pair of nasty hounds. Mighty Excalibur burns bright when in Merlin’s hands and take from that what you will. The music by Grant Olding makes a great soundtrack to the action on stage.

The plot sees Merlin joining the Court of Camelot as a military recruit. He loves Morgan, but she only has eyes for Uther and the throne. Uther has his own challenges to face. Throw in a kingdom at war, the Lady of the Lake, mythical gods and dark magic and the seeds are set for a climatic struggle between good and evil.

A read-through of the synopsis in the programme before curtain-up, might help orientate anyone unfamiliar with the Merlin legend.

All in all, an enchanting night out for fans of the ballet.

Northern Ballet - Merlin plays at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal from Saturday 25 September to Saturday 2 October 2021.

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