Two dancers next to the words The Winter's Tale

May 6, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

The Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet) @ The Royal Opera House (webstream)

While there is a long and proud history of dance adaptations of Shakespeare, Christopher Wheeldon’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale is apparently the first time this play has ever been rendered as ballet. It’s surprising, especially given the proto-musical trappings of the sheep-shearing festival, and the play’s interest in visual imagery, most notably in the statue of Hermione. And in the Royal Ballet’s production (a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada), the stunning choreography and design (by Bob Crowley) work beautifully to tell a deep-woven, wordless story about people falling in and out of step with one another.

One of the invaluable affordances of dance is its ability to physically represent intimacy through coordination and proximity; an ease of movement between two dancers read as a pre-formed, intuitive relationship. A prologue sketches the back-story of the main protagonists, following an arresting opening image of a child raising their head and torso above a group of bodies. Leontes and Polixenes are established as young boys, colour-coded (Leontes in green, prefiguring his jealousy; Polixenes in red), before quickly growing up into the bodies of Edward Watson and Valeri Hristov respectively. They are introduced to Hermione (Lauren Cuthbertson) who spins between the two of them and (in a moment of surprisingly literalised physical intimacy) shares a passionate kiss with Leontes; another blink and Hermione is heavily pregnant. What’s established in this prologue is an easy co-ordination between the three, a fluid elegance to their movement that would be broken down over the coming act.

Act One, in Sicilia, follows the basic contours of acts 1-3 of The Winter’s Tale, but cutting Camillo in favour of more direct confrontation between the three leads. The scene opens on a dark Sicilia, with an enormous ball in progress. Polixenes is the star of the ball, and his red clothes are mirrored in the colours of the on-stage musicians and the bulk of the extras; he dances with the heavily pregnant Hermione while Leontes lingers quietly at the side next to Mamillius (Joe Parker) who sits astride a rocking horse. From the start, Leontes seems sidelined within his own court, and much of Watson’s extraordinary performance is designed to take up space, to push himself back into the centre. The overt jealousy begins as Hermione takes both his and Polixenes’ hands and places them on her belly; everyone freezes while Leontes breaks down in movement. His gestures become jagged; he rotates on one leg on the spot like a broken music box doll; his arms reach out painfully at odd angles. Hermione and Polixenes walk through a gallery dominated by four enormous statues, and Leontes follows them, hunched and creeping. As he watches them, he turns the statues around to reveal erotic figures whose postures Hermione and Polixenes then mimic (marked by a lighting shift to make clear this is in Leontes’ mind). Haunted by his own delusions, which he obsessively creates and watches, Watson’s performance skilfully shows the loss of elegance, of dignity, of composure.

Rendered as dance, and taking action himself, Watson’s Leontes becomes immediately violent. He confronts Polixenes directly in a dramatic pas de deux in which Polixenes attempts to align with Leontes’ movements but Leontes wheels on him, grabbing him violently, forcing him to the ground, putting his foot on his friend’s throat, before Polixenes flees. There’s a moment of respite as the scene shifts to a feminine-coded space in which Hermione’s maids swing Mamillius happily around and they enjoy peace, but Leontes creeps down an enormous staircase onto the stage and takes it over, wheeling and whirling in frenzy, before pulling Hermione to him. As with Polixenes, she tries to read his movements and dance with him, but he’s unpredictable and surprising, turning handstands and picking her up under her belly, barely even giving her anything to hold onto. It’s a heartbreaking representation of lost intimacy, with his touches and gestures now violent rather than supportive. And Leontes’ unquestioned power here – represented in the four black-uniformed guards who appear to carry Hermione off – is overwhelming.

A nice touch of this adaptation is to wordlessly flesh out characters and scenes that can be glanced over in performance, and Paulina (Zenaida Yanowsky) and Antigonus (Bennet Gartside) are especial beneficiaries of this. Yanowsky is tall, often towering over Leontes in their encounters, and has a forceful presence that disrupts and unsettles him. The scene in which she presents baby Perdita to him is full of tension, especially as he lowers his hand towards the basket containing an unnervingly lifelike baby; but Paulina resists and defies him. In a lovely interpolated scene, the ballet shows Paulina parting with Antigonus and Perdita, both farewells a wrench to her as she places a green jewel in Perdita’s cradle before retreating with a series of tiny backwards steps. On top of this farewell, she then breaks the news of what has happened to Hermione, who thrashes out in pain and distress while Paulina comforts and protects her. Particularly for Paulina, it’s a beautiful reminder of what she is put through as a consequence of Leontes’ actions.

For Hermione’s trial, the edifices of Leontes’ authoritarian rule are re-imposed, with an enormous edifice rising on the stage and Leontes standing atop a plinth. Hermione is made to dance solo while the court watches, and her honest performance of sorrow is affecting; so affecting that Leontes himself descends to dance with her, taking over and eliding her physical statements in a clear instance of his management of the trial. The oppressive nature of his movements is shockingly overt, even placing his open hand over her face as he pushes her down. The violence continues until Mamillius dies onstage, flopping back in Paulina’s arms, and Hermione then swooning and apparently dying in response. Leontes continues to lash out, pushing his way through the other courtiers (again, with a physical immediacy that seems shocking amid the more allusive movements elsewhere), but it’s left to Paulina to counter him with a series of aggressive jabbing steps and hand movements that force him back and, eventually, leave him on the floor, grieving. The power of Watson’s performance is compelling, but at the end of this act, it’s almost as if the dance has physically exhausted him.

The first act closes with a shift to spectacle, as an enormous projection of a galleon in stormy weathers introduces the Bohemian coast, with Antigonus emerging with Perdita from a rippling drape that becomes more violent and then flips over to reveal the head of a bear that reaches down to engulf the man. The appearance of the Shepherds to pick up and take away the Child, stripped of the jokes in Shakespeare, is here a simple, brief emblem of hope ahead of the opening of Act 2, which brings on stage a simply enormous, sprawling tree, complete with flautist who accompanies the now-grown-up Perdita (Sarah Lamb) as she dances a solo. The ballet leans fully into the bucolic, folksy aspects of Bohemia – this is a simple place of natural colours, folk music, simple pleasures, and a pleasing contrast to the austerity and violence of Sicilia.

A huge achievement of this production is the investment in Perdita and Florizel’s (Steven McRae) relationship. Florizel begins by watching Perdita from a tree, but the slightly uncomfortable hint of voyeurism is overturned as he begins dancing with her; their duets structure Act 2, and they are all exquisite. There’s something transcendent in particular about Lamb’s Perdita – in her purple dress she visually evokes her mother, and in her stately poise, perfectly composed lines and delicate steps, she is marked as other to the Bohemians. Florizel can barely keep his eyes off her, and their dances show him repeatedly lifting her up, as if presenting or idolising her. McRae is more down-to-earth (especially when adorably disguised in his sheep-shearing garments) and even a little clumsier, all in the service of showing the awe Perdita inspires in those around her; yet she is still warm, laughing and sharing communally. The sheep-shearing festival itself goes on for a long time (even with Autolycus cut), and there’s lots of humour in the dancing of the Clown (Valentino Zucchetti) and community spirit in the large-scale group dances, but they all give way to duets between Florizel and Perdita including a jaw-dropping set-piece ending with them kissing in an impossible inverted pose.

So, the break-up of their happiness carries significant weight. Polixenes erupts into the scene in full rage, the red of his clothes now showcasing the tendency to anger that he has inherited from his friend. Polixenes’ violence mirrors that of Leontes as he grabs Florizel by the throat and pushes Perdita to the ground. The violence and sharpness of his gestures contrasts markedly with the elegant beauty of the pas de deux of the young lovers, and it immediately disrupts the scene without the need for extended negotiation – Perdita and Florizel flee, and Polixenes pursues. Again, the transition between acts is marked with some spectacular trickery, as Florizel and Perdita are revealed on a ship, sailing into the foreground; then with a flash of lightning, Polixenes is seen on a different ship following. Polixenes’ violence bleeds into Act 3 when he bursts in on Leontes’ and Perdita’s reunion, his men stepping forward with hands on their swords, and Polixenes ignoring Leontes’ overtures. Their dance here is a wonderful reversal of their last encounter – now it is Leontes who is trying to synchronise himself with Polixenes and Polixenes who violently wrests himself away. Ultimately, Leontes’ persistence wins Polixenes over.

This more patient Leontes is in thrall to Paulina and to the memory of Hermione and Mamillius, who share a statue before which the two pray. In an inspired movement, Leontes enters with his head on its side, being held up by Paulina, as if the weight of his grief is too much to bear. The two move together in a ritual procession to the statue, and Paulina dances alone, quivering, before the two start dancing in perfect synchronisation and prostrating themselves before the statue. The ritual quality and quiet obedience of Leontes’ movements makes clear that this is a regular endeavour, a lived and practised memorialisation, and the presence of Mamillius in the statue is important in foregrounding the dual loss. As such, Leontes is already open to wonder, and the moment of recognition between Leontes and Perdita – as they both hold up their twinned green jewels – is a simple but effective way to visualise their reunion.

And so to the final scene, where Paulina comes into her own. This Paulina has a distinctive, unusual set of movements all of her own that make her visually distinctive and uncanny; there are intimations of something magical here, something more desperate. Leontes braces himself in front of the statue, now placed at far upstage, and Paulina makes her motions. Fascinatingly, Leontes is still looking down when Hermione begins to move, and Hermione’s gestures are all towards Paulina – it is towards Paulina that she descends, and Paulina’s hand she takes. Only then does Paulina steer her towards Leontes, and the two share a dance of reunion that was the only moment of the ballet that jarred for me – much of the dance involves Leontes taking the lead and moving Hermione around, in ways I felt detracted from her agency at this moment. However, Hermione resolves this by pulling away from him, back towards the statue – now just of Mamillius – and dancing solo in gestures reminiscent of his earlier control of her. Confronted with the image of the statue of his lost son and of his wife’s reminder of what he did to her, he breaks down.

The final reunion, which brings on Perdita to join father and mother, seems to effect a full reconciliation, but it’s here that Paulina’s presence becomes unsettling. She makes a wild series of gestures aimed towards the statue of Mamillius, and it’s not clear whether these are for her or for the benefit of Leontes, to remind him of the ones that she can’t bring back. Leontes leaves, and it’s left for Paulina to prostrate herself alone before the statue of Mamillius, the final image left to the audience as the curtain falls. It’s a fascinating move that sidelines Leontes yet again and insists on the focus being the experience of those who have been lost, and those who still feel that loss; Paulina, alone with the memories of the dead. As wordless as it is, this is one of the most expressive Winter’s Tales I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

Many thanks to those who joined in the #WTWatchParty live-tweeting: co-conspirator Nora Williams and Anna Hegland, Susan Anderson, Thea Buckley, Julie Sanders, and others.

Posted in Theatre review