With a play having so complex and so “inward” a narrative as The Winter’s Tale, the translation of spoken text into dance-theatre is a vexed matter. The character of Leontes is fascinating; the terrible effects of his jealousy and demented imaginings are all too inviting of danced expression, as indeed are the contrasting worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia. But the sustaining dramatic structure is not, as in Romeo and Juliet – that lure for danced Shakespeare – built upon incident that invites (let alone admits of) strong realisation in movement.
It is to the credit of Christopher Wheeldon that his realisation of The Winter’s Tale as a three-act spectacle for the Royal Ballet, seen for the first time on Thursday night, is as well managed as it is. And in everything he is sustained by Joby Talbot’s vividly responsive score. The linchpin of the staging is Edward Watson’s portrayal of Leontes and his descent into a nightmare of jealousy and manic suspicions, which must give the narrative its momentum. Of course, Watson is superb, his body contorted by shapes entirely revelatory, his anger and his anguish in Wheeldon’s imagery profoundly disquieting, and ever inviting of understanding. It is a wholly real, masterly portrayal, and the austere embodiment of his lost conscience is admirably well taken by Zenaida Yanowsky’s grand, commanding Paulina.
These seem the poles of Wheeldon’s dramatic scheme, her noble stillness set against his madness and fevered unreason and, in the last act, his lacerating remorse. Faced with the need to display the pastoral jovialities of Bohemia in the second act, Wheeldon produces a cascade of peasant activity of the most determined verve, with Steven McRae brilliant as Florizel and Sarah Lamb enchanting grace itself as Perdita. But, dear Heaven, how they all do go on, skipping and leaping, and round-dancing and wearing quaint outfits and being jolly. And (like all “folk” performers) never, ever knowing when to stop. That well-known country implement the pruning knife is needed.
Absolutely splendid are Bob Crowley’s designs throughout, giving Leontes’ realm a monumental grandeur (not unlike one of Gordon Craig’s massively austere settings), and producing the ultimate summertime fantasy, centred round a glorious tree, for Sicilia. His references to Caspar David Friedrich, his dazzling evocations of sea-storms and a shipwreck, are everywhere admirable, dramatically resonant, brilliantly done. The staging is a visual triumph, potent, evocative, eye-delighting.
The final act, as dramatic knots are untied, is both the most successful as drama, and the briefest in playing time, with a satisfying sense of calm at its close as Hermione (a serene Lauren Cuthbertson) is restored to Leontes. At curtain fall, we can sense both the skill of Wheeldon’s adaptation and something of the problems he has faced in bringing the narrative to the dance stage. The contrasts he stresses between Bohemia and Sicilia, between the increasing darkness of the first and the sunny exuberance of the second, are vital to the ballet’s progress, albeit there is a sense of too much activity for the ballet’s own good, of a need for editing.