Winter’s Tale, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2016Posted on 13 April 2016
Christopher Wheeldon’s representation of this Shakespeare play, where King Leontes of Sicilia goes insane with jealousy, only recovering after the damage is done and then many years later seeing the younger generation sort out the mess their elders have made, is a marvellous evocation of the story presented in fine Shakespearean style. A painting is used as a backdrop, musicians appear on stage in all three acts, and for the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” silk sheets and lighting work wonders, as they do with ships at sea taking exiles between Sicilia and the coast of Bohemia.
After opening two years ago this Shakespeare anniversary is the perfect time for a revival, and the first night of the present run featured virtually the same cast as the premiere, with Edward Watson superbly portraying the emotional agony of the jealous Leontes in Act I. Wheeldon’s choreography has cleverly shown what is going on in his head as he observes Lauren Cuthbertson as his wife Hermione interacting with Federico Bonelli as his boyhood friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Their pas-de-trois and the trial scene in which Leontes’ son dies of distress, Hermione collapses dead, and the baby princess is whisked away, comes over with conviction. Abandoned on the shores of Bohemia we see her moving her little limbs, and after Bennett Gartside as the ill-fated head of Leontes’ household has been fatally chased off by a bear she is ready to be rescued by the excellent Shepherd of Gary Avis and Brother Clown of Valentino Zucchetti.
In Act II after she has grown up as Perdita, the shepherd’s adopted daughter, the glorious tree provides a setting for some marvellous dancing, with Zucchetti and Beatriz Stix-Brunell full of charm in their rustic partnership, and Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb exhibiting huge youthful joy as Prince of Bohemia and Perdita herself. Colours, lighting, choreography, and the music’s rhythmic intensity all come together in this merry scene, before King Polixenes spoils the party by fiercely rejecting his son’s choice of the Shepherd’s adopted daughter. Exile again, before the dénouement in Act III.
Here is where Zenaida Yanowsky as Paulina, head of the late queen’s household, comes fully into her own in a thrillingly noble performance, her movement and Joby Talbot’s music, so well conducted by David Briskin, creating a magically emotive recognition scene. Magic there is too in this staging, with appearances and metamorphoses in the Prologue, and in that final moment when the statue of Hermione comes to life. As a contribution to Shakespeare 400 this is hard to beat.
Performances with various casts continue until June 10 — for details click here.