Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale is poised to become one of the year's most celebrated ballets, and rightly so. The production excels on nearly every front, delivering an elegiac, immersive confluence of choreography, scenery and music that isolates the psychological themes of Shakespeare’s text – jealousy, regret, redemption – and expertly wrings them of their humanity.
Crafting a full evening-length ballet is no mean feat, particularly when it's based on a work as notoriously unwieldy as The Winter's Tale (long hailed as one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays'). Still, it's easy to see Wheeldon's attraction to the ambitious project: there’s the novelty of adapting a text never before seen on the ballet stage, not to mention the allure of tackling the aforementioned themes physically, charged as they are. What's more, the play lends itself to no fewer than six principal roles, a savoury prospect for any choreographer, not least one with the Royal Ballet cast at his disposal.
Of course, as Wheeldon's 2011 adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland demonstrates, shaping a language-heavy text, in which dialogue takes as much of a front seat as the actual narrative, into something wordless poses some distinct challenges. Alice achieved a commendable degree of commercial success, but its attempts to capture the rhetorical whimsy of Lewis Carroll's wordplay fell short, leading to a mixed critical reception. Fortunately, The Winter's Tale looks set to score highly on both accounts, boosting the Royal Ballet's reputation as a company with supreme narrative finesse.
The ballet preserves the tragicomedy framework of Shakespeare's play, though Wheeldon has condensed its five acts into three, opting for two parts high drama to one part entertainment (it would be a stretch to call this segment comedy, though it’s certainly lighter fare than the ones flanking it). The first act takes place in stormy Sicilia and charts the implosion of a royal family at the hand of its patriarch, Leontes, who becomes convinced his wife is pregnant with another man’s child. Leontes' suspicions are baseless, but once a trace of paranoia infects his psyche, his mania metastasises, charging ahead malignantly, resistant to neither rationale nor evidence. Its force is such that both son and wife collapse dead from distress.
Unlike anger or love, which lend themselves naturally to gesticulation, jealousy is a tricky emotion to convey physically, and Wheeldon’s choreography captures its toxicity and insidious nature commendably. Edward Watson, the company’s resident tragedian, is an ideal choice for the role of Leontes. Who better to to harness the ugliness of Leontes' insecurity and make something beautiful out of it? Watson not only channels his character's anguish but permits it to engulf him physically, reducing him to clambering convulsions. Meanwhile Lauren Cuthbertson offers a dignified and heart-rending turn as the persecuted Hermione, underscoring the pain of her indictment with disciplined, demure articulation. The scene in which she's thrown around violently by prison guards, earning Leontes the fierce reproach of her nursemaid (the powerful Zenaida Yanowsky), is among of the ballet's most moving.
The second act is a perfect foil to the preceding one: Arcadian Bohemia, where the couple's daughter Perdita is banished as an infant, is rustic where Sicilia is courtly, radiant where its counterpart is caliginous. The stage is cloaked in glorious pastels, and a live band rattles off melodies amid a tremendous tree dripping with glittering ornaments. The action fast-forwards 16 years to an idyllic Mayday celebration in which teenage Perdita (Sarah Lamb), raised by a village shepherd, becomes engaged to her lover Florizel (Steven McRae). Their relationship is as sweet as her parents' was toxic, as demonstrated by a sublime pas de deux flecked with sprightly leaps and stolen kisses. The chemistry between Lamb and McRae is just the right side of cloying, and both exude a preternatural youthfulness that belies the mature careers we know them to possess.
Dance (as opposed to plot) takes a front seat in this scene: the corps shine in a rousing spate of folksy asides incorporating flexed feet, sharp twists of the hip and rhythmic stomping. The segment as a whole is buoyant, although it maintains an urgency that suggests tragedy is not far out of sight.
Indeed, the final act returns us to the baleful Sicilian palace, where Perdita and Florizel seek protection after fleeing Bohemia upon the revelation that the latter is the son of Leontes' perceived rival (Federico Bonelli). Here drama returns to the forefront of the narrative as Hermione is discovered to be alive after all. The reveal, in which a 'statue' of the late Hermione appears to come alive, is done beautifully, as is the tender reunion between mother and daughter, but the plot point as a whole leaves a lot of questions unanswered, not least where she's been for a decade and a half and why she's suddenly returned. Hermione and Perdita go on to forgive Leontes with little hesitation, a development that feels even more inorganic. Perhaps this question is better put to Shakespeare, but why spend two acts building up the atrocity of the king's deed only to see him redeemed instantly and with no consequences? The emotive choreography depicting his deliverance is up there with the production's best, but the conclusion is hasty and unsatisfying, ultimately weakening the otherwise fluid narrative.
Plot quibbles aside, The Winter's Tale's many triumphs are manifest. For a story ballet you'd be hard pressed to find a better option this season.