THEATRE | The Magic of Merlin at Leeds Grand Theatre

Reviewed by Carla Gozo, postgraduate journalism student at Leeds Beckett University.

When we think of Christmas season at the ballet, performances that come to mind are classics like The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. But this year the Northern Ballet brought their new production, MERLIN, to the LEEDS GRAND THEATRE to show a story you didn’t realise you wanted to see. CARLA GOZO was in the crowd…

We all sort of know Merlin. We know he had a sword in a stone that was pulled out by a boy named Arthur who was then destined to be the King of Britain. The legend is familiar enough that you know who it’s about, but not so familiar that you actually know what happened. Whether or not you are a fan of ballet, the premise alone pokes at your interest to fill in the gaps.

The first thing you’ll notice is the set. You walk into the theatre to see a giant golden ring floating and slowly spinning behind a translucent curtain of greenery. Immediately you know we are about to be transported deep into a forest of mystical secrets that are yet to be revealed. 

Director and choreographer, Drew McOnie, was faced with the challenging job of telling a tale with no words. Luckily for us, the Oliver Award-winning choreographer was up to the task. Preceded by his work on beloved West End productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and In the Heights, McOnie creates a visual experience with a clear narrative. The intention in every gesture ensures children in the audience can excitedly follow along and dares adults to understand the complexity of the movements.

The leading man, Merlin (played by Kevin Poeung), is our primary story-teller. While he embodies the titular character, Poeung’s real role on stage seems to be to guide us around this enchanted world like a ring leader introducing every spectacle. We join him on his adventure around and beyond The Solar Kingdom as he meets the magical creatures that teach him to embrace his extraordinary abilities.

What is most astonishing is when you realise you’re not looking at a mighty dragon, a lively body of water or a night sky full of stars – those are people moving their bodies. Heather Lehan’s portrayal of the Lady of the Lake captivates the viewers watching her swim in the air. The whole ensemble of dancers that act as the water flow so seamlessly that just the execution alone doesn’t seem real.

But it is so much more than a ballet. When you go to a production about the mythical sorcerer there is a promise to be “wowed” by something your own imagination couldn’t conjure. It’s easy to forget that great performances are achieved by more than just the actors on stage, but that is not the case with Merlin. From characters that appear from nowhere to swords that glow with power, the fantastical vision and innovation by Chris Fisher (Illusionist) and Anna Watson’s (Light Designer) adds an element to the production that is equally as captivating as the dancing. 

For two hours and 10 minutes the magnificent world in front of us let the audience believe that real life had the same childlike wonder. So, when the auditorium lights came back on and the woman sat next to me said, “That’s it, I don’t want a cat or a dog. I want a dragon.” I could not have agreed more.

Merlin runs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 20 November. Tickets are available on the websites of the Northern Ballet and the Leeds Heritage Theatres.