There are certain evenings at the theatre that lodge in your long term memory and continue to play on your mind long after the curtain has fallen. Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of Shakespeare's late problem play 'The Winter's Tale' is perhaps one of the finest ballets I have ever enjoyed, and is without a doubt the most arresting, inspiring and moving evening I've ever spent at the Royal Opera House.
Returning to the venue following an original run, TV broadcast and run in Toronto (this is a co-production between The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada), it's an exceptional display of creativity and imagination with every aspect of the production firing on all cylinders. In a year when Shakespeare is being celebrated extensively, this is a fine example of his work being adapted to a different form so successfully, and deserves to be a jewel in the crown of any celebration.
The Winter's Tale is a text that London has seen numerous times over the past twelve months, but I have to admit that it is in ballet form that I've found it the clearest and most moving. Scholarly labelled as a 'problem play' or 'tragi-comedy', it blends the two worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia and two royal courts. As Kings Leontes and Polixenes grow up as close as brothers, jealousy grips Leontes who accuses his wife Hermione of being unfaithful with his long-term friend, resulting in a display of dangerous monomania.
What makes this production different from so many ballets is the direction. With such a rich narrative text to draw on Wheeldon makes distinct choices between the characters that transcend the form of a ballet and are handled with the same level of care and detail that would be afforded to a production of the play itself. The narrative is so clear that you can practically hear the text speak, and Wheeldon has managed to find a distinctly clear voice for each character and show that through movement in a way I've rarely seen before on stage. Leontes' jealously, which in many productions seems irrational and unfounded here finds a pure physicality that makes you feel as though you are directly inside his head. The jealousy bubbles throughout the first act, combined with fantastic lighting and scenic design that enhances the story telling and builds through to the moving conclusion.
One reason this production stands out is the second act pastoral scene, the 'comedy' within the 'tragi-comedy'. Whilst this scene usually runs the risk of feeling overly twee and hokey, instead I found myself unable to blink for forty straight minutes. The explosion of colour is matched by some of the most exquisite company and solo performances, alongside a wonderful score that blends elements of folk with a fantastic onstage band. Joby Talbot's score is so programmatic that it fits each section perfectly, and it's clear that the piece has been a labour of joint love by both composer and choreographer.
There is some exceptional stage work on display, from the perfectly executed set, colour palate and lighting design through to moments of theatricality that blur the traditional line between ballet and theatre. The infamous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear" is handled so brilliantly that I don't think I'll ever see it played with such conviction, against such an effective yet simple design.
Whilst the dancing is unanimously first rate, I was struck by the acting of the principal performers. Edward Watson inhabits the role of Leontes with such dramatic vigour that you almost forget he is dancing as each intention is explicit and packed full of truthful intensity. He opens the third act alongside Zenaida Yanowsky's stunning Paulina in a complete state of regret and despair, making the multiple revelations extraordinarily powerful. Lauren Cuthbertson is a slight and beautiful Hermione, who without text seems all the more a victim of situation. You find yourself watching in absolute awe at the final scene, and struck by the overall beauty.
They say "a sad tale's best for winter" but I could enjoy this production nightly. This is a true modern classic that deserves to be absorbed into the repertoire as regularly as 'The Nutcracker'. I feel committed to superlatives and cannot recommend this production enough.