To take one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays and strip out the text runs the risk of altering it from the merely puzzling to the utterly indecipherable. Yet such is the confidence of Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic storytelling that we understand what’s going on at each step of the way, even up to the magical-realist ending. With the Royal Ballet company on dazzling form, this first revival looks even fresher than its debut in 2014.
Edward Watson as Leontes has rarely been as powerfully expressive, psychotic jealousy flooding through him and activating his muscles into acts of violence and self-harm. There were moments when I genuinely feared for his victims – Lauren Cuthbertson’s pregnant, loving Hermione, Zenaida Yanowsky’s fiercely loyal Paulina and Federico Bonelli’s Polixenes – all of whom are thrown about by the deranged king. At one moment I even thought he might toss his newborn daughter into the orchestra pit, so credible was his unpredictability.
With the extraordinarily inventive and resonant designs of Bob Crowley – a magnificent floating tree, marble statuary, staircases and massive pillars that glide silently into position – there is no lack of visual engagement. Spectacular video projections and billowing silks represent perilous sea journeys and the most notorious exit line in Shakespeare: ”…pursued by a bear.” None of it detracts from the glorious dancing of the principals or the corps.
The shift of mood from the Jacobean darkness of the first act to the bucolic frolic of the second is achieved with breathtaking ease, assisted by Joby Talbot’s scintillating score. Wheeldon’s neo-classical steps range far and wide in variation and influence but are always part of the fabric of the whole; there are hints of Balanchine in the elastic syncopation of the corps, shades of MacMillan and Cranko in Watson’s ad astra extensions and Ashton in Steven McRae’s warp speed entrechats. When a couple come crashing down in the Bohemian scene, it seems more a result of the delirious momentum of the dance rather than an error of judgement.
The climax and the coda as Leontes touches the statue of his dead son in the hope that it will come alive like that of Hermione, is beyond moving. As Paulina gently leads him away she seems to say: Don’t push it – you only get one miracle. I was in bits.