The Winter's Tale
Choreography Christopher Wheeldon
Music Joby Talbot
Designs Bob Crowley
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
April 15 - May 8
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2014 by Judith Cruickshank
Working with the team which collaborated with him on “Alice”, Christopher Wheeldon has succeeded very well in telling the story of Shakespeare's “The Winter's Tale”. This was presumably not the view of the gentleman to my left who spent much of the first two acts reading the synopsis, but I found that Wheeldon's staging made the simplified plot easy to follow.
A brief prologue sets up the relationship between the two boy kings Leontes and Polixenes. Most of the action then takes place in the lengthy first act which is set in Leontes' court in Sicilia. Act II moves to Bohemia where we are introduced to the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel, and the 24-minute last section provides us with the denouement when Perdita is recognised as the daughter of Leontes and Hermione and the statue of the seemingly dead Hermione comes to life and is reunited with Leontes.
The key role of Leontes is built around the particular gifts of Edward Watson, both physical and dramatic. Struck by a sudden fit of jealousy he trembles, writhes, oozes into crevices as he imagines Hermione in an adulterous relationship with Polixenes. It's impressive, but excessive; more suited to the stage of the Grand Guignol. And you have to wonder why his courtiers don't immediately guide a man, who has so obviously lost his reason, to that comfortable locked room in the East Wing of the palace.
The wronged Hermione is Lauren Cuthbertson. Again, why it is that an obviously pregnant women allows herself to be lifted and tossed around so energetically as Wheeldon's court dances demand. She is touching in her little dance of grief in the trial scene. But well as she danced Cuthbertson failed to make as much of an impression as Zenaida Yanowsky did in the role of Paulina – the key figure in the drama. A wonderful performance which manages to convey a world of feeling with the smallest of gestures.
And here is where I have a problem with Wheeldon's choreography. It's both attractive and inventive but it seems to me that much of it fails to tell us more about the characters or advance the action. Happily both first and second casts include accomplished dance actors who know how to build a character. Curiously, I found the second cast more effective than the first in this respect.
True, Bennet Gartside, who bravely stepped into the role of Leontes when injury sidelined Thiago Soares, is unable to equal Watson's spectacular depiction of the King's deranged jealousy, but his restrained grief in the last act is really moving, as is the sense of wonder as he realises first that the daughter whose death he ordered in his madness is standing before him, and that the beloved wife he so wronged is in fact alive, rather than having been killed by his insane fantasy.
Marianela Nunez is a regal Hermione which makes the moment she is escorted to prison and her courtroom solo all the more effective. Both she and Cuthbertson show real tenderness in their interaction with young Joe Parker who plays the child Mamillius, son of Leontes and Hermione.
Almost the most spectacular thing in Act II is the vast green tree, hung with amulets and love tokens that dominates the stage. Plenty of dancing for both Perdita, Florizel, Perdita's supposed brother and a young shepherdess, not to mention an ensemble of peasants and shepherds. So much so that one began to think that the whole affair would benefit from some severe pruning. As Perdita and Florizel Sarah Lamb and Stephen McRae in the first cast were impressive, Wheeldon's dances with their big jumps and neat flashing footwork showing McRae especially, to great advantage. But, as one friend remarked, they were two principal dancers showing what they could do. Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov danced just as brilliantly, but one could really believe that they were a young couple discovering true love for the first time. And their simplicity of approach allowed the beauty of their dancing to show to full effect.
Both casts are really good, each having its own strengths even in the smallest roles. Laura Morera is a wonderful Paulina, different in emphasis from Yanowsky, but equally effective. Gary Avis as the shepherd who rescues the abandoned baby Perdita is excellent, as are, respectively, Valentino Zuchetti and Luca Acri as his son –- Acri in particular seeming to appreciate that this is a character role and should be played as such, despite the showiness of the steps.
Bob Crowley's sets are simple, effective and work well, and there are tremendous effects of shipwrecks and ships flying across stormy seas. I'm less enamoured of his costumes, however. At times there seems to be an awful lot of fabric flying around the stage with kilts for the shepherds and full skirted coats for the male characters. Joby Talbot's score provides an efficient accompaniment, but I found it completely unmemorable.
Despite my reservations “The Winter's Tale” provides an entertaining evening and I for one will be happy to see it return. I wonder though if it might not be improved by cutting some of the dances in the Bohemian scene and running the two later acts together. But a single interval might not be welcomed by those at Covent Garden with an eye on the bar profits! My principal regret however, is that to my mind, at no point did the ballet mirror the beauty of Shakespeare's verse, and even when it approached that summit the credit seemed to be due more to the skills of the interpreters than those of the choreographer.
© Judith Cruickshank