Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is arguably one of the most complex and tricky narratives to convey. However, Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic interpretation comes alive through the clarity of the storytelling in this tale of jealousy, destruction and hope from the younger generation, which works on nearly every level.
A bright and joyful second act is sandwiched between the darker first and third acts located at Leontes’s Court of Sicilia. Each twist of the narrative is done so neatly, even those unfamiliar with the tale will have been fully engrossed as Ed Watson’s Leontes plunges into an intense madness and the devastation that follows.
The cast remains the same as two years ago when the production premiered on the Opera House stage. The stand-out of this all-star cast must be Zenaida Yanowsky, who is commanding and powerful as dutiful nurse Paulina. She is sincere and strong in the various roles she must fulfil, a pillar of strength to Leontes in his darkest moments, and a comforter and confidante to his wife Hermione when perturbed and unsettled by her husband’s jealous behaviour.
Lauren Cuthbertson is a graceful, dignified Hermione who, despite her traumatic ordeal, remains composed and controlled in the trial scene. Ed Watson is totally absorbing as Leontes and his dark fall into an insane and deranged jealousy. His contortions and convulsions are menacing and prolonged, and every movement is loaded with intensity.
In Act II, Sarah Lamb is regal and placed as Leontes’s daughter, Perdita; while she suits this light and decorative role, it’s still a stretch to believe her humble upbringing when her true aristocratic heritage seems so obvious. However, the Bohemian Act is stolen by the effervescent Steven McRae who fizzes across the stage like an eighteen-year-old with endless energy and verve, bringing the much-needed joy and uplift the act requires after the turmoil of the first.
The score also notably improves in Act II. Back at court, there is no real sense of melody and the overall feeling is dower and dull – perhaps this is deliberate given the content. However, Tolbot’s score comes to life in Act II at the Bohemian’s spring celebrations. The music still has a slight unpredictability that evokes the feeling of a film score rather than a ballet, however the storytelling remains lucid in these carefree scenes where the corps are finally allowed to shine in this bright and joyful depiction.
One slight grumble is the staging of perhaps the best-known stage direction in literature. As Antigones attempts to leave the rejected baby Perdita on the Bohemian coast, the bear he is to be so famously pursued by is conveyed by a waffling sheet, which feels a bit pathetic and forgettable for such a luxurious production. Others might say it is subtle and artistic – the jury is still out.
Overall, Wheeldon’s interpretation of Shakespeare tale is an engrossing and visually engaging evening. It is aided by the numerous strong individual performances that only the Royal Ballet can boast and will undoubtedly develop into an audience favourite in the seasons to come.
The Winter’s Tale is playing at the Royal Opera House until 10 June. For tickets and more information, see the Royal Opera House website.