Left – Francesca Hayward & Steven McRae. Cover – Francesca Hayward & Steven McRae. Photos – Darren Thomas
While Shakespeare’s works have been reimagined as ballets many times, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is perhaps the first to attempt The Winter’s Tale. The Winter’s Tale has been described as a ‘problem play’ but Wheeldon and his team have created an absolutely delightful interpretation. The three acts, cut down from Shakespeare’s original five-act play, are a joy to watch, vivid in colour and stark with emotion.
In this late work by Shakespeare, two kings separated as children are reunited as adults. Leontes of Sicilia (Edward Watson) is happily married to Hermione (Lauren Cuthbertson). The two have a son whom they adore, Mamillius (Scout Nicholas). When Polixenes of Bohemia (Federico Bonelli) visits, he is welcomed wholeheartedly by the family.
Right off the bat, Bob Crowley’s key costume decisions mixed with expert lighting by Natasha Katz allow audiences to easily follow the fast-paced prologue. The transition of Leontes and Polixenes from children to men was cleverly expressed via seamless movement into, between and out of the corps de ballet, while the joyous reunion and new friendships, shown via beautiful one-on-one and one-on-two dance sequences, move the plot forward further.
But Polixenes leaving at the same time Hermione is about to give birth to a second child sparks Leontes’ suspicions. And as the music changes in Act I to something more sinister and as the lights dim, the audience is transported into Leontes’ mind. Anyone who knows jealousy will surely appreciate Watson’s writhing, jaw-clenching portrayal of Leontes. Firstly, he wrestles with common sense and benefit of the doubt, his brain urging his heart to see reason. But finally, he gives in, unleashing senseless anger with consequences that he will come to regret.
The pace does not slow down: Polixenes flees from Sicilia; Mamillius becomes ill from his parents’ fighting; Hermione is arrested and publicly accused of adultery. Mamillius dies; Hermione’s daughter is born but rejected by Leontes; the baby is sent away for abandonment. Hermione also dies and for the first time, Leontes realises his terrible mistake and becomes a wretched shell of a human.
The appropriately injected interval gives audiences a chance to digest the heavy first act and catch a breath. But the action continues in Act II, albeit in a much more colourful manner. Some years later, we watch the abandoned Perdita (Francesca Hayward), now 16, thriving in a bright pastoral scene in Bohemia. The greens, pinks, oranges and gold shimmer as she dances among the corps de ballet, which now has a chance to show off its skills in what is essentially one massive festivity of dance and music. She also dances with her love, a shepherd boy, who is actually Prince Florizel (Steven McRae) in disguise. When Polixenes finds out what his son is up to, he condemns Perdita and her family to death. This is the only dramatic moment of Act II – for the rest, audiences can simply enjoy the sheer physical skill of the cast and the lively music comprising exotic ‘broken consort’ instruments played by an on-stage band – giving a kind of cliffhanger ending before the second interval.
The contrast between the tragic first act and mostly jovial second act are balanced perfectly in Act III, in which audiences return to Bohemia for all loose ends to be tied up. Audiences find out whether Perdita and Florizel can be together; whether Leontes can live with his regrettable actions from the past; and whether Hermione really died. The happy, though reflective, ending is beautifully portrayed.
Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot both described in separate interviews the challenge of bringing together such disparate emotions across different locations and eras in time from Shakespeare’s original work. But the pair, along with their fellow collaborators, managed this wonderfully.
This performance is part of QPAC’s International Series, which brings world-class performers to our shores. There are just a few days left to catch The Royal Ballet in The Winter’s Tale.
The Royal Ballet
The Winter's Tale
a co-production with The National Ballet of Canada
Direction and Choreography Christopher Wheeldon
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Date: 5 – 9 July 2017
2017 QPAC International Series