The Winter’s Tale, The Royal Ballet

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, July 5.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s wondrously strange, knotty late works. The pitfalls are many but so are the rewards. Compassion, contrition, forgiveness for great wrongs and reconciliation are its towering themes.

Dance gives direct access to such heart-stirring emotions, or does at its best. Christopher Wheeldon and his brilliant collaborators, chief among them composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley, have created an essentially faithful reading of The Winter’s Tale that does honour to the text and even improves on it at one point. Along the way they prove the three-act story ballet still has plenty of juice left.

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Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Leontes, King of Sicilia, believes his wife, Hermione, has broken her marriage vows with his lifelong friend the Bohemian king Polixenes, and a mad obsession takes hold. The fallout is catastrophic as family and friendships are wilfully demolished.

That would be more than enough for a meaty tragedy but it’s just the beginning: The Winter’s Tale seeks the light. A lost child is found, a woman thought dead comes back to life, amity between kings is restored and their offspring fall in love, offering bright hope for the future.

Wheeldon’s telling is lucid, tightly focused and gorgeously arrayed in sound and sight. Talbot’s score overflows with energy, generated by lusty rhythms, Eastern flavours and tremendously effective, scene-setting instrumentation, revealed sumptuously by Queensland Symphony Orchestra under music director Alondra de la Parra.

Crowley’s designs are just as potent a narrative element too, juxtaposing the austere formality of the Sicilian court with the buoyant, colour-drenched Bohemian countryside where, 16 years after the events in Sicilia, young lovers Perdita and prince-in-disguise Florizel frolic with friends who are bursting out of their skins with boundless energy and good humour.

QPAC_The_Royal_Ballet_The_Winter's_Tale_Francesca Hayward & Steven McRae
Francesca Hayward and Steven McRae in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

The zesty, folk-meets-ballet dances in this second act are intricately constructed, utterly delightful and really do go on too long, although Wheeldon knows his audience. Cheers greeted the outpouring of youthful virtuosity. Francesca Hayward’s fresh, unaffected radiance as Perdita and McRae’s soaring, ardent, fleet-footed Florizel were thrilling.

Apart from Hayward, who replaced the injured Sarah Lamb, on the first night of The Winter’s Tale Brisbane saw the dancers on whom the ballet was made. They included the incomparable Edward Watson as Leontes and, as Hermione’s confidante Paulina, glorious Zenaida Yanowsky, who retires from the Royal after the final Brisbane performance tomorrow (July 9). Yanowsky recently farewelled London audiences after starring in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand but perhaps she isn’t unhappy that Paulina, the conscience of The Winter’s Tale, truly marks her exit.

Wheeldon gave his most pungent and distinctive choreography to Paulina and the tormented Leontes and Yanowsky and Watson, both superlative dance artists, made starkly expressionistic movement a window into the soul. They were matched in impact by Lauren Cuthbertson’s dignity and strength as the ill-treated Hermione.

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Zenaida Yanowsky as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Watson wasn’t afraid to walk a treacherously slippery highwire. Leontes is very close to insanity as he insists on believing that Hermione is an adulterer and Watson gave the character something of the extreme intensity seen in silent films. Leontes’s restless, angular movement takes its cue from an agonised speech in Shakespeare’s Act II in which a highly unsettling image is conjured: “I have drunk, and seen the spider,” says the king. Watson looked feverish and distraught in a dangerous, on-the-edge performance.

He was therefore all the more touching when Leontes realises Perdita is the daughter he abandoned (a scene not shown by Shakespeare but related by characters called First Gentleman, Second Gentleman and Third Gentleman). Soon after, Leontes discovers that Hermione, too, is still alive but Wheeldon again departs from Shakespeare by reminding the audience that some things can never be truly mended.

Shakespeare’s Leontes decides to promote a marriage for Paulina, just to round off the happy ending. Wheeldon leaves her alone and mourning. He and Talbot, who collaborated with Wheeldon on the scenario, have revived hope for serious narrative ballet.

The Winter’s Tale ends in Brisbane tomorrow (Sunday, July 9).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. sophoife says:

    Oh Deborah as you know I love to see as many casts as possible, so I squeezed my budget till it squealed, then a bit more, and saw all three Winter’s Tale casts we were treated to in Brisbane. Edward Watson/Lauren Cuthbertson/Steven McRae/Francesca Hayward/Federico Bonelli and the glorious and incomparable Zenaida Yanowsky on Friday night, Ryoichi Hirano (on début replacing the injured Thiago Soares)/Claire Calvert/Alexander Campbell/Akane Takada/Bonelli (replacing Hirano)/Itziar Mendizabal (almost-original third cast) on Saturday afternoon, and Bennet Gartside/Marianela Nuñez/Vadim Muntagirov (henceforth referred to as Vadream)/Beatriz Stix-Brunell/Valeri Hristov/Laura Morera (almost-original second cast) on Saturday night.

    I was also able to attend the Insight session on Friday afternoon with Christopher Wheeldon, his assistant Jackie Barrett, and RB Director Kevin O’Hare. It was fascinating as the best of these sessions can be, and to see Campbell and Takada taken through part of the act II pdd, and Calvert the “trial” solo, was illuminating – the tiniest gesture has meaning, and I found myself watching all three casts’ renditions of both the pdd and the solo with a deeper understanding and seeing the differences much more clearly than usual.

    Wowzas. What a glorious, gorgeous ballet. And what very different feels from each cast! Yanowsky was without doubt or argument the star of her cast, Watson’s amazing physicality notwithstanding. She had me in tears at the beginning of act III. Nuñez was the Hermione for me. She and Gartside both used their eyes to convey their emotions, and since I sensibly had my binoculars to hand (well, the balcony in the Lyric is a fair distance from the stage) I was treated to an experience. Hirano was the cover for Leontes, but as a fourth cast had never taken the stage, had two days to learn it properly and get up to speed with a new cast (even harder, I would think, for the trios with Hermione and Polixenes and the duets with Polixenes, as he would know them from Polixenes’ POV!), and thoroughly deserved his applause.

    Yes the folky dances do go on a bit too long, but when act II is basically an extended pas de deux for McRae and Hayward or Campbell and Takada or Vadream and Stix-Brunell, so what? With Valentino Zucchetti and Stix-Brunell, Marcelino Sambé and Yasmine Naghdi, or Luca Acri and Naghdi all bouncing around delightfully and airily as Brother Clown shepherd and his shepherdess, what’s not to love? The lead-off corps shepherd on Saturday afternoon caught my attention, and I noticed him again that night: Reece Clarke, as I was later informed.

    Act III was deservedly Yanowsky’s on Friday night. Nuñez’ Hermione could barely look at Gartside’s Leontes, not many omens for a reconciliation there, despite the reunification of their little family. Their pdd was a bit of a heartbreaker for me. Here both Calvert and Cuthbertson were a little less rigid, and there was hope for a future for Hermione and Leontes.

    As the promotion list came out on Sunday, I now know Naghdi was dancing her shepherdess as a new principal, and Gartside Leontes (and Thomas Whitehead Father Shepherd on Saturday afternoon) as a new principal character artist – a rank almost exclusive to the Royal as far as I know, and such a brilliant idea to help retain that knowledge and artistry past someone’s leading man or leading lady days, Gary Avis being a prime example (Father Shepherd Friday and Saturday nights, Bay Middleton in Mayerling, just to name the two parts I saw him dance this year, but he also gets to do brilliant Tybalt as well).

    Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall were at the Saturday night performance, and I do think King-Wall would be a lovely Florizel, and so I told him before the show. Afterwards I asked him did he see what I meant and he said yes and thank you, but that the act II pdd would be very hard!

    I do hope Wheeldon is able to share Winter’s Tale with other companies besides the Royal and National Ballet of Canada soon, as I think it could become one of the great and popular story ballets.

    1. Thank you for this tremendous account. I had very much wanted to stay for all casts but alas it wasn’t to be. The company is looking wonderful, isn’t it?

      1. sophoife says:

        Oh yes. And I am a spoilt, spoilt woman as I saw three Mayerlings (Bonelli/Morera, Soares/Cuthbertson and Watson/Osipova in that order), and the Ashton triple bill (Morera/Campbell’s début Oberon, Nuñez/Vadream Symphonic V, Osipova/Shklyarov M&A) on my #ballettourofeurope2017. Also Iana Salenko/Dinu Tamazlacaru in Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake (Staatsballett Berlin), Elisa Badenes and the gorgeous David Moore in Cranko’s R&J (Stuttgarter Ballett), Amandine Albisson and Josua Hoffalt in Robbins’ En Sol and Alice Renavand in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s Boléro (POB), and Alexandr Trusch and Edvin Revazov in Nijinsky in Hamburg. Plus a bonus BRB matinée in Cheltenham with my nieces and sister of Jessica Lang’s Wink, Ruth Brill’s Arcadia, and the divine The Moor’s Pavane of José Limón. The men in Berlin, Paris and particularly Stuttgart were outstanding, such technique! I could say so much more…

        1. I have to admit that sounds quite the trip. Lucky you!!

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