Winter’s Tale, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2014Posted on 11 April 2014
For Christopher Wheeldon to take on Shakespeare is a bold move. The words are of huge importance, but so they are in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which Wheeldon successfully produced as a ballet three years ago, and when he expressed an interest in tackling the Bard at that time, Nicholas Hytner suggested Winter’s Tale.
This late play, in which the mess made by the older generation is fixed by the younger sixteen years later, is a good choice. It starts with a brief first scene describing the shared childhood friendship of Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, here played as a Prologue, after which Leontes is the main character, stunningly portrayed by Edward Watson. As he exhibits the huge agony of the king, mistakenly believing his old childhood friend to be having an affair with his wife Hermione and the cause of her pregnancy, I was reminded of Watson’s remarkable earlier role in Metamorphoses.
The several pas-de-trois for the three of them, with Lauren Cuthbertson as a beautifully serene queen and Federico Bonelli a dashing Polixenes, show great subtlety, and a pas-de-deux between Hermione and Polixenes suggests Leontes is right to be concerned, though the lighting and a partial freeze indicates this is a figment of his imagination. Act I ends after Leontes’ fury leads to the death of Hermione and her son Mamillius, and Antigonus (Bennet Gartside) takes baby Perdita to the coast of Bohemia, famous for that wonderful stage direction, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.
No one is dressed as a bear, but this production — a team effort between Wheeldon, Bob Crowley (designs) and Natasha Katz (lighting) — does marvels with silk sheets and video projections. We see great ships at sea, storms, and indeed the bear, yet there is something inherently Shakespearean about it with real musicians in costume on stage and paintings showing Act III backgrounds in Sicilia.
The immensely colourful costumes and wonderful green tree of the Bohemia in Act II form the ballet’s centrepiece, beautifully suited to the young love between Perdita, brought up as a Shepherd’s daughter, and Polixenes’ son Florizel. Gary Avis is a wonderful old shepherd who gamely tries to join the dancing, and Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb are a picture of energy and joy as Florizel and Perdita.
After Polixenes threatens arrest and death to his son and the peasants, the lovers flee to the Sicilia of Act III, where Joby Talbot’s music — well directed by David Briskin who also conducted Alice last year — is at its most moving. Zenaida Yanowksy’s wonderful Paulina resumes the dramatic role she had in Act I, and the coming to life of Hermione’s statue is beautifully done. The trio of Leontes, Hermione and Paulina makes a gentle ending, and a moment’s quiet reflection would have been perfect, though applause erupted too soon as the music was finishing.
The second cast’s first performance takes place on April 16, and performances with both casts continue until May 8, including a live cinema relay on April 28 — for details click here.