Review: Royal Ballet - The Winter's Tale - Royal Opera House
Performance reviewed: 12 April
Almost exactly two years to the day since its world premiere, Christopher Wheeldon’s ambitious – and unique – staging of The Winter’s Tale returns to the Royal Opera House for a welcome revival and with the exact same principal cast.
Until Wheeldon was persuaded by his friend, Sir Nicholas Hytner, to consider The Winter’s Tale it had remained untouched by ballet, which might seem odd when one considers that several of the Bard’s plays have provided a rich vein of inspiration for choreographers over two centuries and more. It is, for sure, a tough challenge. The play’s prologue and five acts cover the madness of jealous rage, a shipwreck, the death of one child and the exiling of an infant, an innocent being devoured by a bear and then – after the passage of 16 years – on to the pastoral gambolling of a romance in the sun and an eventual denouement of rehabilitation and apparent resurrection. Not only is The Winter’s Tale unusual amongst Shakespearian output with events taking place over such a long passage of time; but much of the main events occur offstage, which is not an ideal recipe for ballet!
The most famous of these is of course the hapless Antigonus’ demise. Having been ordered to take Hermione’s baby and abandon it in some desolate place, he is the one who is subject to perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. Unfortunately, the enactment of this iconic moment (late in Act 1 of Wheeldon’s ballet) is a damp squib with the bear being an indistinct illustration on a large white sheet. I am tempted to say, so I will, that it’s a bare-faced-cheek to have a bear-faced-sheet depicting probably the most famous line in the play.
The challenge of The Winter’s Tale is significant. It is like beginning with the end of King Lear and morphing it into A Midsummer Night’s Dream! The long opening act takes place in the cold and callous world of King Leontes’ Sicilian court where the king’s childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, is visiting for nine months (a most significant period). Leontes’ Queen, Hermione, becomes pregnant and her husband suspects that his friend is the father. His jealous rage drives Polixenes away and leads to Leontes’ decision to exile the new-born baby girl and the broken-hearted deaths of both Hermione and their infirm son, Mamillius.
After Antigonus has left the baby on the seashore (conveniently in Polixenes’ land of Bohemia – it must be a fictitious land because the real Bohemia has no borders with the sea) and is chased off by the bear, she is discovered by a shepherd and his son. Act 2 has the baby, Perdita, now grown into a beautiful young woman in love with Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, who is disguised as a farm boy. After sundry shenanigans borne out of Polixenes’ disdain for his son’s adventures with a perceived commoner, everyone ends up back in Sicilia where the deeply remorseful Leontes persuades his former friend to accept the marriage (helped by the revelation that Perdita is a royal) whereupon a statue of Hermione comes to life and husband and wife are reunited to live happily ever after.
To the credit of Wheeldon and his collaborative team (the same group that were responsible for his earlier full-length venture for The Royal Ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), they deliver Shakespeare’s narrative with remarkable clarity. The story I précis in the above two paragraphs is very easy to follow without prior knowledge of the play, or reading programme notes.
For me, however, the three acts are not equal in terms of their relative success in all areas of the artistic collaboration. The middle act is superb, in every respect. It especially enjoys the monumental centrepiece of Bob Crowley’s enormous oak tree, complete with sprawling roots, which accentuates the pastoral imagery of the Bohemian springtime festival. Joby Talbot’s score is at its most enjoyable in this act, too, accommodating a folksy flavour of the southern Mediterranean (this is a Bohemia that has captured a chunk of Greece, by the sea) and enhanced by the unusual sounds of an onstage Romany band.
It is in this act that Wheeldon’s choreography sheds the character-driven necessities and is allowed to soar as pure dance. This is especially true in his swirling group dances for the villagers under their giant tree but most notably in one of this choreographer’s most glorious, romantic pas deux for Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, reprising their roles as Perdita and Florizel; concluding with an iconic moment of ballet in a combined lift and kiss that has Lamb’s legs resting on McRae’s shoulders and outstretched left arm, crossed over (left leg, straight, and right bent at the knee with her foot gorgeously arched and pointed), and her upside-down torso curled around in front of his chest into the most sentimental and sensual of kisses. It’s an image that sits comfortably alongside the most memorable moments in the MacMillan and Ashton repertoire.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the palace-bound interiors in the court of King Leontes. Crowley’s white ‘marble’ designs with their irregular shaped columns, large statues and thin staircases leading nowhere are impressive representations of the cold paranoia and lack of reason in Leontes’ psychological surrender to the green-eyed monster.
The element that works least well for me in the first act is Talbot’s score, which occasionally seems like incidental music for a TV western. It has an overt literal effect to warn the audience that this part is scary or to illustrate the conflict on stage but this dramatic purpose is heavily dominated by percussion, low brass notes and shrieking woodwind. It lacks any melody or tune; sometimes sounding as if it is just a series of scales with bells on.
Wheeldon is nothing but loyal. As well as retaining his creative team, his opening cast is not only identical to the world premiere, two years’ ago, but most were also first-cast in Alice, back in 2011. Edward Watson (Alice’s first White Rabbit) is in his element as the anguished Leontes, burning with envious retribution and smouldering with mournful remorse. As Hermione, Lauren Cuthbertson (the first Alice) spends much of Act 1 dancing with a pregnancy bump and part of Act 3 as a statue. The duet of reconciliation that closes the ballet was beautifully performed by Watson and Cuthbertson, bringing back fond memories of their mutual debuts as Romeo and Juliet one Easter Monday, more than a decade ago.
Zenaida Yanowsky was a solid support as the empathetic Paulina, the character who brings good into the sorry tale, and it was also very welcome to see Gary Avis reprise a role that required some dancing as the shepherd who saves the baby princess. His Greek-flavoured dancing with McRae and Valentino Zucchetti (as the shepherd’s son) was a treat. Bennett Gartside was suitably noble as the doomed Antigonus and Federico Bonelli provided a dramatic counterpoint to Watson’s Leontes, in the ever-present role of Polixenes (the only character to appear in all three acts).
As I reported in 2014, Wheeldon has done a fine job in creating the first full-length ballet from The Winter’s Tale and – despite my reservations about the music in Acts 1 and 3 (I love it in Act 2) and the sorry depiction of the bear – this is a tale that should stay around for many winters to come.
Continues in rep until 1 June 2016
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter
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