Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
The lockdown has brought us many treats from the archive, but few are as utterly enchanting as Christopher Wheeldon’s 2014 production of The Winter’s Tale performed by the Royal Ballet and filmed with considerable care at the Royal Opera House. Now streaming on the Royal Opera House’s Facebook page as part of its Our House to Your House content, across three Acts and two hours this is a rare opportunity to lose yourself in a delightful ballet adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
Two Kings and childhood pals – Leontes and Polixenes – spend all their time together in the company of Leontes’ beloved wife Hermione. But ahead of the birth of her second baby, Leontes begins to suspect her purity, looking no further than his best friend for the paternity of her child. Causing a rift in the court, the baby is cast out and the family destroyed, until years later Polixenes’ son desires to marry a beautiful peasant girl and a lost world is returned.
The opening and closing acts of Wheeldon’s production are an extraordinary feat in storytelling, effortlessly translating the intricacies of Shakespeare’s text into dance form and capturing every nuance of the building psychodrama. With staging designed by Bob Crowley and set to an evocative classical score by Joby Talbot, the life of the court is given a painterly feel as attendants swirl around the happy threesome with shadowy columns and the all-important marble statues given pride of place in several key scenes.
Some of the effects Crowley achieves look amazing on screen and must have been breath-taking on stage including the use of silken curtains onto which the placid summer sky, raging storms and the sails of ships are projected. In one of the finest moments the projection instantaneously takes the audience from the ship containing the escaping Prince Florizel and Perdita to that of their pursuer King Polixenes, using the camera to focus in on the projection while a set switch happens seamlessly below.
One of Wheeldon’s most notable achievements is in the meaty roles for female dancers in his show with Hermione, Perdita and Paulina given prominence in a number of charming showcase pieces that emphasise how completely the women in this play are innocently affected by their menfolk. Laura Cuthbertson makes dancing in a false pregnancy belly look easy as a dignified and graceful Hermione whose closing reconciliation with her husband is beautifully pitched. Sarah Lamb has all the expressive and simple sweetness of the fairy tale princess unaware of her true identity, while Zenaida Yanowsky’s forbearing Paulina is the engine of the story.
But it is Edward Watson’s damaged Leontes that dominates the show, brilliantly charting the decline of a once happy monarch. Watson responds with intensity to the searching close-ups, using all his acting skill to unpack Leontes’ mind as the psychological and emotional consequences of his actions leave him wrecked. Whether or not he deserves his ending is another matter, but Watson will make you feel every second of his agony.
Like the play, the countryside feasting and dancing scene that dominates Act Two is charming but tends to run on too long, although it allows the corps de ballet to demonstrate their talents in a section that includes freer and more fluid shapes. But it is the management of tone, of the darkness that surrounds and plagues Leontes’ court that Wheeldon presents so affectingly, and, wordless though it is, makes this one the finest adaptations of Shakespeare’s magical play.
Streaming here until 1 June 2020