Monday, 21 April 2014

The Winter's Tale

Beatrix Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov as Perdita and Florizel in Act III
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
The Winter's Tale, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 10th and 16th April
 
The Royal Ballet's latest new full-length work is a version of Shakespeare's late romance, The Winter's Tale, choreographed by Artistic Associate Christopher Wheeldon. I wrote about the show's insight evening (including a rundown of its complex storyline) last month, but here are my thoughts on the ballet in performance.
   
Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson and
Federico Bonelli as Leontes, Hermione and
Polixenes in Act I. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
Things I like about The Winter's Tale:
 
1. The well-told narrative: The ballet's prologue clearly shows the growing up and development of two young princes and sets the scene effectively for what follows. Similarly, the way in which King Leontes' jealousy is portrayed, with brief interludes demonstrating his lascivious imaginings, cleverly and unambiguously displays his inner turmoil.
 
2. The music: Joby Talbot's score is filled with variety, drama and interest that works well with the action onstage.
 
3. The sets and costumes: Bob Crowley's designs are much more pared back than in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but work equally well in conveying character and setting. The simple long-skirted dresses in Sicilia are particularly effective.
 
4. The choice of ending: Instead of focusing on the happiness of the Sicilian king's reunion with wife and daughter, Wheeldon ends the ballet with a painful reminder of the death of Leontes' young son, Mamillius. When Hermione comes back to life, she is not joyous but rather still heartbroken at her husband's mistrust. She dances a painful, impassioned duet (pictured below right) with Leontes before eventually forgiving him. But it is the statue of Mamillius, tragic and alone, that creates the show's memorable final moment as the curtain closes.
 
Marianela Nunez and Bennet Gartside
as Hermione and Leontes in Act III
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
5. Hermione's convincing pregnancy: It is rare for ballet characters to be pregnant onstage (though it does happen - see my blog on ballet babies). In The Winter's Tale, Hermione is pregnant for much of the ballet's first act, and her bump is both so well and securely designed, and so carefully choreographed (with partner holds avoiding the dancer's waist), that it is utterly convincing. As Leontes throws his wife to the floor in a jealous rage, I couldn't help thinking "no - don't hurt the baby!".
 
6. The choreography: Wheeldon's choreography is dramatic and interesting (with the exception of some of Act II, which I discuss below) and has a clear intention and meaning behind each movement. But it also pleasingly leaves room for differing dancers' interpretations.
 
7. The principal roles: The ballet has six leading characters which give dancers a variety of opportunities to express differing emotions - from the angry, tormented Leontes, to the calm, unfortunate Hermione, and the charming and amorous Perdita and Florizel, there is plenty to challenge a top ballet company.
 
8. The quality of performances: In both casts, acting and dancing is excellent. Lauren Cuthbertson and Marianela Nuñez offer similarly powerful interpretations of Hermoine, whilst Edward Watson's mentally deranged Leontes is very different from Bennet Gartside's controlling and angry portrayal of the same character. Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae make delightfully sweet lovers, and Zenaida Yanowsky and Laura Morera both offer real depth in their performances of Paulina.
  
Weaknesses of The Winter's Tale:
  
1. Lack of bear: "Exit, pursued by a bear" - one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions - is massively underplayed. The bear, painted on a large piece of silk and wafted onstage, has almost no impact. In fact, as the fabric moves, there is little chance to even see that it is a bear. The moment is more comedic than menacing.
  
Steven McRae as Florizel in Act II
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
2. Act II: The quality of this act seems to divide audiences with some loving it and others, like myself, finding it overly long with repetitive and unexciting choreography.
 
3. The ballet's length: At three hours, The Winter's Tale is as long as Swan Lake. Most of the choreography is great, but a trimming of the middle act and consequently earlier finish time would be preferable.
 
All in all, whilst The Winter's Tale is not a perfect ballet, it has many good qualities and certainly deserves to be a staple in the Royal Ballet's repertoire.

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