For the third time in four months we saw Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE only this time dancers peopled the gloomy court of King Leontes in Sicillia and the sunny fields of neighbouring Bohemia as we saw Christopher Wheeldon's Royal Ballet production.
Shakespeare's tragi-comedy is one that I enjoy a lot but how can a production of it be a success with the loss of his words? Quite easily. Constant Reader, when you have a choreographer of Wheeldon's talent who, rather than doing a scene-for-scene transposing, instead conjures up the mood and the feelings behind the words.
By turn thrilling and emotional, Wheeldon is to be applauded for dropping the lengthy rude mechanicals comedy characters from the Bohemia scenes, instead the second act concentrates on a lengthy pas-de-deux between the young lovers Perdita and Florizel. As I said, what is remarkable about the production is that with no words to concentrate on, Wheeldon can instead focus on the emotions that drive Shakespeare's story and can linger on certain moments that are overlooked in the rush of words.
Christopher Wheeldon provides a prologue showing Leontes and Polixenis as young friends, separated when they become the rulers of Sicillia and Bohemia only to be reunited as adults with Leontes' wife Hermione. When Polixenes cancels his return to Bohemia because Hermione asks him to, Leontes is thrown into a jealous rage suspecting them of having an affair, which Wheeldon choreographs in a fascinating scene where Leontes clambers over the court sculptures to spy on the couple, who he imagines making love.
Polixenes flees but Leontes has Hermione arrested and put on trial. Witnessing his mother's trial, Prince Mamillius collapses and dies which causes Hermione to collapse too. Her chief supporter Paulina announces the Queen is dead and Leontes finally is confronted by the disastrous consequences of his misguided jealousy. Paulina's husband Antigonus is killed when he leaves Hermione's recently-born baby daughter to die on the shores of Bohemia and the baby is adopted by a shepherd - and all of that in the first half!
Wheeldon's choreography was remarkably involving and he was also helped enormously by the ominous design of Sicillia's court by Bob Crowley and the atmospheric lighting of Natasha Katz. Joby Talbot's score was also very fine, particularly stark and sombre as Leontes' jealous madness takes hold only to blossom into lyricism for the second act when we see the grown-up daughter Perdita falling in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Again Bob Crowley's setting of a large tree was quite marvellous.
Most of the conclusion in Shakespeare's play frustratingly happens offstage but Wheeldon has the reunion between Leontes and Perdita happen onstage when he recognizes his wife's pendant that was left with her as a baby. Of course what was lost in the climax was Shakespeare's wonderful poetry when Leontes is confronted with a statue of Hermione 'coming to life' - one line that always gets me is Leontes' "O she's warm" when he touches his wife's arm - but the gentle lyricism of Wheeldon's choreography went some way to making up for this.
In fact Wheldon's final moments provided a touching coda that is not found in the original play: Crowley's design for Hermione's plinth has her standing with a figure of her son Mamillius and, as Hermione and Perdita left the stage to get to know each other after their lives apart, Leontes eagerly touched the statue of his son hoping for 'magic' to happen twice... only to be led away by Paulina as if to say "No your son *is* dead" and as the King left with his thoughts, Paulina bowed down in memory of the lost Prince. Quite lovely and enhancing Shakespeare's plot rather than ruining it.
The lead dancers all gave excellent performances while never losing the feel of a dedicated company: Bennet Gartside as Leontes, Marianela Nunez (so good previously in Wheeldon's AFTER THE RAIN and GISELLE) as a noble Hermione and, in, particular Itziar Mendizabel was wonderful as Paulina, expressing aching grief with every movement. It was good to see her again so quickly after her impressive featured role in GISELLE. Special mention too for Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov as Perdita and Florizel in their lengthy second act pas-de-deux.
A worthy addition to any ballet fan's repertoire and a credible choice as the nearest related-production seen before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.