This exquisite new ballet by Christopher Wheeldon transports the Covent Garden audience to undiscovered waters and undreamed shores.
Sarah Lamb (Perdita) and Steven McRae (Florizel) in The Winter's Tale by Christopher Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House Photo: Tristram Kenton
Excellently simplifying of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays into a linear narrative, Wheeldon has selected and refined key characters, symbols and scenes that are best portrayed visually, while staying true to important elements. We won’t give it away, but suffice to say his tackling of the infamous Shakesperean stage direction “exit, pursued by bear” is genius.
In a role made for the male ballet-master of macabre, Edward Watson plays the part of Leontes King of Sicilia impeccably, clawing, coiling and contorting, literally spiralling into his own downfall. The moments that may tip high drama over into farce are merely part of the mime experience of this romantic tragi-comedy. Agitated and surreal, the whipping geometric precision of his arrow-like arms and extended line provide flashes of recognisable character motifs as well as a gleaning of Wheeldon’s choreographic style - namely enough recognisably classical vocabulary to keep the puritans happy with innovative modern edges, flexes and quirky signature moves included.
Lauren Cuthbertson as the long-suffering, innocent Hermione, sails around in sweeping arabesque spins en pointe in her long purple gown, and the scene-stealing Zenaida Yanowsky binds the story, moving expressively with the little foot-flexes and sharp rises we are becoming accustomed to.
Joby Talbot’s specially-commissioned new score is masterful, with sweeping classical strings for the rushing storyline and more jittery flutes and rattling percussion to coincide with Leontes’ descent into turmoil, and seething, vengeful orchestration for the more sinister moments.
The stories of love, family, friendship and jealousy are set up in Act I in the shivering and dark bare winter season of Sicilia, but, as the curtain rises on Act II, the bejewelled, gleaming tree of Bohemia in the thawing renewal of spring rouses a clap of its own from the awestruck audience. It’s a calmer second act, where the corps de ballet come into their own to celebrate in a playful, flirty group dance for the spring festival. The music is mystical, full of wind chimes and cowbells with auburn design hues adding to the rustic tone.
It’s a contentiously contented Act III, Mamilius and Antigonus are tidily swept under a rug and 16 years of suffering is thrust aside to joyously forgive Leontes his bad behaviour. But Wheeldon didn’t write in the happy ever after - he’s just working with what he was given and he creates a suitably dramatic moment when Hermione becomes “stone no more”. It’s a fitting ending for the play’s message of redemption, and that out of death comes life.