By Nigel Smith
BUOYED by the success of their 2011 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot teamed up again with designer Bob Crowley to create their next full-length work for the Royal Ballet – The Winter’s Tale. Premiered in 2014, the work quickly cemented itself into the repertoire, and is back onstage again at the Royal Opera House this season.
We were invited to view the production on Wednesday at FACT Liverpool, as it was screened live to cinemas across the world.
Shakespeare’s play can be problematic to stage, but it explores such elemental emotions and has such breadth of time and place that it lends itself beautifully to interpretation through movement.
In the prologue and first act, Ryoichi Hirano takes over the role of Leontes (originally created by Edward Watson) and, opposite Lauren Cuthbertson’s exquisite Hermione, gives extraordinary depth to the toxic jealousy of the character. The angular, convulsive choreography of the part somehow reveals the tortured mind of the crazed king more than any words could manage, as he descends into the mire of rage that will eventually consume both his wife and son. Alongside them is Matthew Ball as Polixenes, the third vertex of Leontes’ imagined love triangle. A member of the company in the work’s first outing, it’s easy to see from his perfect fit in this part, and his elegant delivery of it, how he has risen to the rank of First Soloist. A native of Liverpool, I’m sure he was aware that he had a loyal following of family and friends cheering him on from the cinema here in his home town.
It is toward the close of this first act, as Antigonus flees with Leontes’ banished daughter Perdita, that Bob Crowley’s stark, geometrical sets begin to melt into something more ephemeral, with some stunning use of projections onto billowing, painted silks.
If the first act is dark and brooding, the second bursts into light and colour in the Bohemia scene. Here, some 16 years later, we meet Perdita, who has fallen for Florizel, Actually the son of Polixenes but who masquerades as a shepherd boy. Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov make a beautiful pairing as the young lovers, in this act’s extended duets. There is a sense of unalloyed joy and freedom about the movement and its execution here, and this is where the choreography has its most traditionally classical feel. Watch out for the onstage band too, including the addition of some interesting musical textures from dulcimer and accordion. It’s Matthew Ball’s turn to be consumed with rage when his Polixenes sees that his son intends to marry a shepherd’s daughter, and this is the cue for more melting of settings as the scene shifts into flight, this time by sea.
The final act returns us to Sicilia, where Shakespeare’s unravelling of the story takes place in scenes of reconciliation. Once again, the ability of ballet to depict complex and sometimes implausible plot lines comes into play here. The closing scenes not only make some sort of sense out of the return of Hermione but also give a stark reminder of the cost to Leontes of his own jealousy in the loss of his beloved son.
There is no doubt that this creative team have made a work that is already a modern classic. Now, with the introduction of new performers recreating some of the key roles, Wheeldon’s choreography shows itself to have real staying power alongside Talbot’s richly textured score.
The Winter’s Tale is in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 21st March and there are encore screenings of Wednesday’s captured performance in cinemas on various dates through till June.
The next ROH Live event is Barrie Kosky’s new production of Carmen, in cinemas live on 6th March.