Shakespeare without words – did ‘The Winter’s Tale’ really work as ballet?

I watched Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most curious play from the upper slips of the Royal Opera House, wondering quite how the intricacies of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ would translate into dance. But they did. And it was mesmerising. The Royal Ballet, in collaboration with the National Ballet of Canada, first created this three-act performance in April 2014, when I watched it streamed live to my local cinema. Naturally, my most recent experience was completely different, and infinitely more enchanting.

First grouped among Shakespeare’s comedies, and now accepted as more of an experimental, psychological drama, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is problematic, difficult to pin down, almost unknowable. It should not therefore, work so well as a ballet. Yet, Wheeldon’s ability to blend picturesque scenes with the whole troupe, and single moments of intense drama involving just one or two dancers, that Shakespeare would have conveyed through meticulous linguistic choices, was incredibly impressive. In the first of such moments, Watson conveys Leontes’ intense jealousy as the King first begins to doubt his wife’s fidelity and her unborn child’s paternity, entirely using the controlled agonizing and writhing of his body.

The hamartia occurs in slow motion, beginning, and then returning to, a single moment where Leontes and Polixenes (Federico Bonelli) both have their hands on Hermione’s (Lauren Cuthbertson) swollen stomach. The rest – the psychological torment and the interior workings of Leonte’s troubled mind – occur among the cleverly utilised statues placed on the stage, as if his ancestors are watching and attempting to warn Leontes of his fatal flaw. The physical embodiment of emotions – of jealousy, grief, and then redemption – is what made much of this performance so special. It was unsettlingly modern, like the fabric of the play itself, and actually reminded my friend of the work of contemporary dancer Martha Graham, who herself used dance to bring serious issues to the stage in an intensely dramatic manner.

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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

After another emotive scene in which Hermione is put on trial and assumed dead by Leontes, sixteen years pass; their daughter Perdita, also believed to have died, has been abandoned on the shores of Bohemia and raised as a lowly shepherd girl. Here Wheeldon makes use of a truly beautiful set which revolves around a tree of life, bursting with colour, vitality and the simplistic joys of its folk. Its spring aesthetic is a complete contrast to the dark, wintry halls of Leontes’ kingdom we saw in the first act. The wonder of first love between Perdita (Sarah Lamb) and Prince Florizel (Steven McRae) is also simplistically and more traditionally danced, using the rest of the troupe as a back drop and feast for the eyes, while we are always inclined to focus in on the romance between the young protagonists.

Of course, the final scene brings the audience back into the darkness of Leontes’ grief and torment. Catharsis is created as he truly repents his actions, but in return the statue of his wife (though not his beloved son) comes to life. He has learned his lesson, and to an extent he is rewarded. For me the most poignant moment of this performance is the very last, which manages to speak to the audience without any words. Paulina (Zenaida Yanowsky) shakes her head as Leontes turns back to the statue of his boy, letting Hermione exit the stage. There has to be a lasting punishment of some kind, and with one gesture of her hand off stage, Paulina seems to utter something along the lines of ‘Look after what you already have, and stop longing after that which is impossible to obtain. Be content.’

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