Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
As producer, composer and musical director, Katherine Cole has almost single-handedly created a brand new musical, brought to life by Night Owl Theatre. Welsh to its core, with thick accents reverberating from every corner, I Merlin tells the tale of Welsh legend Blodeuwedd, the Lady of Flowers, seen through the eyes of Merlin (Dan Lambert), who is both powerful Wizard and knowledge-bestowing father. Straddling the divide between present day and medieval Wales, Merlin’s role of storyteller, shared with angelic Eleni Young as his daughter Geneth, is somewhat confused by his unexplained appearances within the story he is telling; his primary function appearing to be issuing ominous, fatally ignored warnings of the disaster sure to befall the other characters should they continue meddling in magic, nature and love.
The strongest characters are that of Blodeuwedd (Tara Camm) who succeeds in creating an otherworldly presence, her wild nature barely contained beneath a cold and cruel exterior, and Merlin himself. Merlin has a powerful stage presence, his spine-tingling growl escalating to an almighty roar which echoes through the small studio. This echo effect is used a number of times by various characters, providing a perfect companion to the drama of the legend enfolding before us. Unfortunately, there are recurring sound issues throughout the performance, with crackling microphones and poor overall acoustics within the theatre. Coupled with some timing issues of actors coming in either too soon or too late on their lines, this gave the impression that the whole performance wasn’t as well polished as it could have been.
A modern musical score, with rock heavily featured, provided an interesting contrast to the medieval story, although this contemporary twist unfortunately did not extend to the tale itself. An archaic sense of humour pervaded the play, relying heavily on an outdated and, at times, offensive stereotype of women as nagging, inferior nuisances, only good for producing heirs and looking desirable. Entire songs were devoted to the pressure on Blodeuwedd to learn how to please her husband and become the perfect wife. Whilst the time period of the play makes this an understandable opinion for the male characters to hold, not seeing this tempered with more modern views or at least a corresponding stereotyped indictment on the men, was disappointing. Some of the adult humour was perhaps too inappropriate for a child-friendly, and child-featuring, show with thinly veiled sexual references and lines such as “hung like a bear”.
However, there was also much beauty within the play; the language in particular was beautifully poetic, and a fairly simple but effective castle setting transported the audience to medieval times. The magical Tree of Life, illuminated by soft lighting, formed a particularly arresting aspect of the set, although there were some sudden lighting changes throughout the performance which appeared incongruous with the action taking place on stage. Daniel Hill and Eleanor Thorne played the young Llewellyn and Sioned; their use of grown up language and contrived actions extremely endearing, with it being apparent they had little concept of the meaning behind their words and coy gestures, in their youthful innocence.
An element of over-acting was prevalent from the older actors but this disappeared in the musical numbers which made up the majority of the show. Every single cast member had an amazing voice, which made for gorgeous listening, especially when the entire cast sang as an ensemble, producing some enchanting harmonies. The hilarious dynamic between the troupe of five wizards was a highlight, with a particularly strongly comedic performance from Steven Evans as Taliesin, and their musical number ‘Magic Maidens’ producing some hearty laughter.
Stretching to two and a half hours including interval, this new musical requires some pruning and honing in order to flourish. It may not be the stuff of legends, but it has magic and whimsy aplenty.