Review: Royal Ballet - The Winter's Tale - Royal Opera House
A few Shakespeare plays have been a rich source of inspiration for choreographers but, until now, The Winter’s Tale has remained untouched by ballet. This complex narrative starts out as a dark psychological tale of jealousy and revenge but lightens up in a journey from tragedy to romance whereby the final act rights all but one wrong. It’s like having Othello at one end and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the other. A large supporting cast and action that transfers between Sicily and Bohemia add further complication.
So, credit is due to Christopher Wheeldon for tackling a challenge that no other choreographer has taken on and for creating a ballet in which the central themes of Shakespeare’s drama are delivered with surprising clarity. I sense that familiarity with the play isn’t necessary to understand the ballet’s narrative, which is a huge achievement in itself.
The story concerns two kings who were childhood friends and are reunited as adults: Leontes (the King of Sicily) and Polixenes (of Bohemia). Leontes accuses his queen, Hermione, of sleeping with Polixenes and believes that their unborn second child has been fathered by his friend. Polixenes flees back to Bohemia and Hermione is imprisoned, where she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita. The shock of Leontes’ rejection eventually kills both her and their young son, Mamillius. The newborn baby is banished by Leontes and – after a shipwreck- ends up in Bohemia, where – sixteen years’ later – she falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel. Following various further shenanigans, they end up married; Perdita is reconciled with her father; and the icing on the cake comes in the fact that Hermione did not die after all. Poor Mamillius is therefore the narrative’s only unresolved casualty, a fact recognised in Wheeldon’s production by the boy’s statue remaining on stage as the curtain comes down.
Bob Crowley’s set designs are superb, with an enormous oak tree dominating the second act in the way that Peter Pabst’s simple yet monumental designs created exactly the right setting for Pina Bausch’s later works. It is rare to witness spontaneous applause for a set as the curtains rise but it happened here, and deservedly so. Crowley’s white marble designs for the Sicilian court were equally impressive, combining irregular shaped columns, impressive statuary and staircases that appeared to materialise from nowhere. These designs represent the cold, insecure, pallid state of Leontes’ character most effectively.
My main quibble about the set was the damp squib that was made of Shakespeare’s best known stage direction (“Exit, pursued by a bear”). Bennet Gartside had the honour of playing the bear’s prey, Antigonus, who is chased offstage and devoured but I expected so much more of his attacker than the disappointment of a billowing sheet bearing the drawing of an indistinct bear’s head!
I had doubts about some of Crowley’s costumes, especially in terms of the lengths of skirts and tunics in the courtly scenes and the strange collection of bohemian “hippy” clothing worn in Act 2. In the sixteen years between the two acts it looks as if we had fast forwarded from sixteenth century Sicily to the 1970s (Steven McRae’s costume of a purple waistcoat and orange top and trousers was a hoot).
The least appealing aspect of the whole enterprise was Joby Talbot’s lacklustre score. The composer has gone overboard to provide dramatic flavour but it often seems too literal, as if taken from a library of incidental orchestral music used in vintage TV series to describe action, sorrow, fear etc. Close your eyes from time-to-time and it could be an episode of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). The score lacks any memorable melody or theme. If this ballet continues in the repertoire for a century of performances – as I hope it will – I doubt if anyone will ever come out of the auditorium humming a tune.
It’s also a ballet without a star role. Leontes and Hermione dominate the first act but don’t appear at all in the second; in contrast, Perdita and Florizel don’t arrive until Act 2. Wheeldon is nothing but loyal to his friends and not only are the creative team exactly the same as for his last full-length ballet (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011) but the first cast is almost identical, too. His first Alice, Lauren Cuthbertson, returns here as Hermione, running through a range of conditions from being pregnant at the beginning of Act 1 to a statue coming to life in the dénouement of Act 3. The choreography for Edward Watson as Leontes in Act 1 did him no favours since it seemed derivative of identikit expressions of jealousy and anger in performing other roles (I think particularly of Prince Rudolf in Mayerling) and he lurched towards over-acting in Act 1. But, I did like the way in which Watson stretched and changed the role into the sober, mournful character that Leontes has become by the final act. The reunion pas de deux at the ballet’s conclusion captured the couple’s maturity in their reconciliation.
Wheeldon’s choreography is a major plus throughout with clever descriptions of character in the diverse movement employed over each of the three acts. His work for the corps de ballet in the middle (Bohemian) act is especially good, embellished with folk themes and intriguing patterns. But there are three occasions where the corps de ballet let out shouts of exclamation, which is a wholly unnecessary affectation. The magic of ballet is generally broken by the intervention of dancers speaking (or, for that matter, shouting).
The best dancing performances came in the romantic roles for McRae as Florizel and Sarah Lamb as Perdita. Lamb’s opening solo in Act 2 (against the backdrop of that amazing tree) was a masterpiece of lyrical precision and charm; McRae was allowed to let rip with some assured virtuosity including an impressive manège of double tours and linking jumps; and the pair enjoyed a fine pas de deux complete with an imaginatively staged kiss (performed twice).
Zenaida Yanowsky provided impressive support as Paulina (Hermione’s confidante) and it was also good to see Gary Avis in a role that required some dancing as Father Shepherd, the saviour of the baby princess once Antigonus had been chased off, stage right, by the sheet. A bearded Federico Bonelli was rather anonymous in the role of Polixenes. He had lots of hand gestures and scowls but little material of much choreographic or dramatic strength.
Whenever Frederick Ashton made a new ballet he would take great pains to see how it looked from every point of the auditorium and it is a lesson that Wheeldon would do well to emulate since a lot of his crucial action takes place upstage on the far right (and left) and is unseen by the audience seated at the sides of the house. Situated in the Stalls Circle, I missed several moments of dance in all three acts.
Despite my reservations about the music and some aspects of the design, this is a fine addition to The Royal Ballet’s repertoire, which has taken on a difficult challenge and achieved the near impossible task of conveying one of Shakespeare’s problem plays in dance alone and for the first time. Wheeldon has done a fine job in bringing The Winter’s Tale in from the cold.
Continues at the Royal Opera House until 8 May
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.