The Winter's Tale

Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Joby Talbot
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

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Francesca Hayward Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Cesar Corrales Credit: Andrej Uspenski

The Winter’s Tale is a choreographic masterpiece pummelling out a range of dramatic emotions from rage and jealousy to love, lending ballet a contemporary frame of movement, but never once losing sight of its classical roots.

It is an evening of two worlds in two shades: darkness and light. Tragedy, coupled with a frothy effervescence. Then backed by a spine-tinglingly, elegiac score from Joby Talbot that charts every nuance of the dancers’ emotions and beautiful sets from Bob Crowley that cradle the ballet’s themes of sadness and happiness, moving us from greys and gloom into the light with apricots and spring greens, basking in a fruit bowl of colour and joy. The two worlds finally flow into one. It is, quite literally, an astounding piece of theatre, proving the Royal Ballet can act as well as dance supremely.

Famous for being a notoriously difficult play to stage, how on earth choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has distilled Shakespeare’s congested, confusing narrative into clearly marked scenes that sweep you along in a flurry of gutsy pace and excitement is sheer genius.

The ballet opens in Sicilia as Leontes and his wife Hermione welcome the King's best friend, King Polixenes, who comes to visit and reminisce on the past. All goes well until there’s a pivotal moment when both men place their hands on Hermione’s stomach, a supposedly innocent act, but one that jolts into action a torrent of strange, psychotic behaviour from Leontes, who suspects his wife of having an affair with Polixenes and impregnating his wife.

From this moment on, Wheeldon’s choreographic muscles flex into full creativity, casting Leontes as a being from the underworld, a snake or spider, capable of great harm in his descent into madness. We witness the precise moment King Leontes’ jealousy hits and overtakes his rational mind in movement terms, flicking like a switch from harmonious to disturbing. We don’t need to hear it. We are shown, not told, how it feels to be consumed by jealousy.

At first, Leontes is all diplomatic smiles and royal behaviour, but he soon freezes, and in tonight's cast, Mathew Ball handles this change with convincing menace as his hands curl around his face and body twists to the ground, giving rise to the monster within, only to be quelled and softened in the last act by head of Queen Hermione's household Paulina (Mayara Magri).

Balletically, the imagery is striking. I remember seeing Edward Watson debuting as Leontes a decade ago, and it’s hard to eradicate his performance from mind, but Ball brings different shades of unsettledness to the role. His is a more interior sadness as he transitions from anger and jealousy to totally broken, shuffling across the stage, cared for by Paulina.

Watching the King lunge through a box shape Paulina makes with her hands, pushing his head through the restricted space, is especially powerful. Here is a man who is trapped in his own mind and has singlehandedly destroyed his family. Such movement details impart the story clearly, allowing for immediate, emotional impact without getting bogged down in the dense language of Shakespeare’s play.

Ball is matched finely by Marianela Nuñez as the regal and elegant, dignified Hermione, who suffers her fate without ever losing hope or belief in her beloved, crazed king. There is beckoning in her movement as she implores, desperate to show the King her faith, yet at the same time a resignation.

Then, in the second act, we are immersed in the folksy, happy world of Bohemia. Crowley’s backdrop of a giant green tree with branches dripping in sapphires lends an otherworldliness and childlike innocence to the setting. Images of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree come to mind. It also gives rise to the most fabulous passage of dance, whereby folk and ballet merge in foot-stamping joy with arms thrown high in abandon, emanating a giant whoop from the cast.

As Perdita and Florizel, Yasmine Naghdi and William Bracewell fizzle with youthful abandon, grace and softness, more pronounced after such brutal scenes of violence and abuse in Sicilia. The couple bring such lightness to the stage in a beautiful compatibility and unbottled joy. Bracewell dances like a young colt, enfolding and tenderly wooing Nagdhi, who is all willowy and melting in his arms. It is impossible not to root for the young couple and will them towards a happy ending as the two worlds unite in the final act.

Liam Boswell shines bright as Brother Clown, catapulting around the stage, elevated with joy, and Magri chisels out a strong but imploring Paulina, a solid force battling against the madness that pervades court.

Created for the Royal Ballet ten years ago, it has been revived a couple of times since, but hasn’t returned to Covent Garden since 2018. Now it’s back with four almost new casts. I could watch each and every version.

“We wanted to show all the guts onstage not a series of vignettes about The Winter’s Tale,” explains Talbot on process. Tonight, guts are spilled and Wheeldon’s cinematic choreography expressing themes from jealousy through to the redemptive power of love and parenthood create an entire world that cannot easily be forgotten.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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