The Winter’s Tale is a ballet to cherish. From one of Shakespeare’s most recalcitrant plays, Christopher Wheeldon has created a work of supreme beauty, rich in psychological detail and emotional clout. Having premièred back in 2014, it now makes a welcome return to the main stage – triumphant proof that, post-Macmillan, narrative ballet is alive and well at Covent Garden.
Ingenious designs allow Wheeldon to steer the narrative across considerable leaps in time and place. Oceans voyages are conjured up by projections and gangways that nimbly slide onstage and back into the wings, while the infamous bear materialises beautifully out of a rolling wave of silken fabric. The gloomy court of Sicilia is bathed in chilly light, dominated by monolithic pillars, stone staircases and statues, while a huge green tree hung with golden baubles provides the backdrop for the second act’s Bohemia, a contrasting kingdom of festivity and fecundity. The play’s prologue is neatly staged, with the bounding duets between Leontes (Edward Watson) and Polixenes (Federico Bonelli) overseen by a swirling cloud of black-clad dancers, an intimation of the tragedy to come.
As Leontes, Edward Watson is as superb as he was two years ago. Psychologically tortured characters have always been his forte and this is a masterclass. The baseless jealousy that overtakes Leontes is enacted through contorted, convulsive physical language – he folds in on himself, hands squirming, unravelling through frenzied spins that modulate into accusatory points of his forefinger, his leg jabbing at jarringly extended angles. To the insistent pizzicato phrases of Joby Talbot’s score, he creeps and scuttles like a beetle, his lurid imaginings taking physical form when Polixenes’ and Hermione’s innocent interactions descend into a lascivious coupling. Full of gentle grace, Lauren Cuthbertson is perfect as Hermione, while Zenaida Yanowsky’s Paulina is a dramatic vision to behold, by turns contemptuous and movingly compassionate toward the king. Alone onstage at the ballet’s close, bowed before the statue of the dead boy Mamillius, she’s a figure of enduring humanity and emotional articulacy.
After the agony of the first act, the second offers us pure visual and musical joy. As the young lovers Perdita and Florizel, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae fizz with the unbridled energy of young love – he guides her across his shoulders into decorous balances that culminate in a kiss. The shrieking and dirge-like horns of Sicilia are gone, replaced with a stirring, folky soundworld that shimmers with chiming bells. The corps, a merry gang of colourfully-clad shepherds and shepherdesses, respond to this music with brilliant, coruscating waves of movement, full of jaunty flexed feet and Cossack-esque springiness from the men. This, truly, is poetry in motion.
The Winter’s Tale is on until 10th June 2016. Click here for tickets.