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.

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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).