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Review: Ballet Of The Winter's Tale Is A Modern Classic

The Winter's Tale, Royal Opera House ★★★★★

By Sam Smith Last edited 13 months ago
Review: Ballet Of The Winter's Tale Is A Modern Classic The Winter's Tale, Royal Opera House 5
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Act Two of Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale © Johan Persson
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Act Two of Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale © Johan Persson

Until two years ago, The Winter’s Tale was one Shakespeare play that had never been interpreted through dance. Then choreographer Christopher Wheeldon stepped up to the plate to produce a version for the Royal Ballet, and it was instantly met with critical and popular acclaim.

The story explores what happens when King Leontes of Sicily unjustly accuses his wife Hermione of being unfaithful. Most of his family die of grief, and his daughter Perdita is left abandoned on the Isle of Bohemia, but after a long period of penitence there is a reunion as not every tragedy that occurred proves irreversible.  

This first revival of the work feels just as strong as the original production, which is hardly surprising since the opening night cast this time around is almost exactly the same as it was for the very first performance in 2014.

The original story is skilfully, and only slightly, altered to work for a predominantly visual medium, and a second viewing provides even greater opportunities to appreciate just how clever the ballet is in rendering the play’s themes (although it is not necessary to know the source material to enjoy the evening). For example, jealousy is an emotion that it would seem almost impossible to represent visually, but that is exactly what Wheeldon succeeds in doing, aided by the brilliant performance of Edward Watson as Leontes.

Watson is an outstanding psychological dancer, who renders the large, crazed movements that see legs set at right angles to the body with a swirling intensity that is also revealing of superlative technique. It is noticeable, however, that it is not the movement alone that renders the emotions. As Leontes is initially overwhelmed with jealousy there are alterations in the music and lighting, the dynamic crowds of people suddenly ‘freeze’ and even the poses adopted by the statues at court suggest the ideas that are entering the King’s head.  

After the tragedy has unfolded, Act Two provides lighter relief as we watch the ‘next generation’ dance at the intoxicating sheep sheering feast, and really sense how in this tale of renewal these people do not possess any of their parents’ baggage. The cleverness of Wheeldon’s choreography is to create a swirling effect as more dancers join the throng without it ever looking as if they are all following the curve of a conventional circle.    

Bob Crowley’s sets vividly portray snow, sea, storms and clouds while an iconic painting by nineteenth century German artist Caspar David Friedrich also appears to good effect. The manner in which a ferocious bear is shown to eat a man by enveloping him would seem to represent a halfway house between realism and stylisation. Joby Talbot’s music successfully combines the modern with a certain ‘Renaissance folk’ style, which feels entirely appropriate for a tale whose messages of forgiveness and renewal transcend the ages.  

Alongside Watson’s own, there are a plethora of outstanding performances. Lauren Cuthbertson presents Hermione as a naturally vivacious person who by extension feels immeasurably shaken and dishonoured when her simple affability is mistaken for infidelity. Sarah Lamb provides a winning combination of dynamism and delicacy as Perdita, Steven McRae reveals brilliant technique and panache as her lover Florizel, and Zenaida Yanowsky’s pose, poise and expression make her performance as Hermione’s Head of Household Paulina truly exceptional. With the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein on 4 May, The Winter’s Tale is about to lose its tag of the Royal Ballet’s newest full-length ballet, but it has already earned another one of modern classic.

Until 10 June (fifteen performances) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, WC2E 9DD. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets visit the Royal Opera House website. Londonist saw this ballet on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 15 April 2016