Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale is a ballet for all seasons and was exceptionally danced

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Koen Kessels (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Ross MacGibbon) to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 22.5.2024. (JPr)

Mayara Magri (Paulina) © Alice Pennefather

First staged in 2014, the year of Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, The Winter’s Tale is revived for the third time on its own 10th anniversary (and it now is the Bard’s 460th of course). Had I re-read my review from ten years ago maybe I wouldn’t have been so reluctant to see it again, as it was only the cast I was seeing that had brought me back to Cineworld Basildon.

As I wrote in 2014, every narrative ballet could do with a mad king, a lost royal child eventually restored to her family, stormy sea voyages, a shipwreck, wedding festivities, and the famous stage direction, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. Indeed, the story is no more or less absurd than any number of ballet classics.

After a Prologue and Act I at the court of Sicilia, The Winter’s Tale takes us to some bucolic shenanigans in Bohemia for Act II some sixteen years later and then back to Sicilia again for the final act. On a second viewing Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet is undoubtedly flawed with some scenes ending abruptly and the first two acts overstaying their welcome: it shouldn’t take as long as it does to establish the closeness of Leontes of Sicilia and Polixenes of Bohemia as young princes and how a rift develops between them after Leontes’s marriage to Hermione because of his jealousy over supposed – and ultimately unfounded – infidelity. Leontes believes the child Hermione is carrying is Polixenes’s and he has her arrested and brought to trial. Leontes is now quite mad and not only does his sickly son, Mamillius, die but so it seems does Hermione. Paulina, the head of Hermione’s household, never lost faith in her mistress and Antigonus, her husband, sets sail with the daughter Hermione gave birth to. They reach the shores of Bohemia but he is eaten by that bear! The baby girl is discovered by a shepherd and his son along with some treasure and the emerald necklace Hermione was given by Leontes when they married.

In Act II we see an extravagantly large green Tree of Life hung with sparkly talismans. Perdita, the daughter of Leontes and Hermione is now all grownup; she dances with – and becomes engaged to – Florizel, Polixenes’s son, here disguised as a shepherd boy. It is the time of the annual spring festival and villagers celebrate (accompanied by an onstage band) with much boisterous dancing. Joyful as the effervescent ensemble numbers are they go on and on and on. (Fifteen minutes plus lost here and elsewhere would have reduced the ballet to a much tauter two acts.)

At the height of the festivities Perdita is crowned May Queen and the shepherd who raised her presents her with the emerald he found. Polixenes arrives in disguise (naturally!), forbids the marriage and condemns Perdita and her family to death. However, they all flee by boat with Polixenes following close behind.

We are back in Sicilia for Act III and Perdita and Florizel plead with Leontes to allow their union. Polixenes arrives but Paulina discovers the emerald around Perdita’s neck. So, the long-lost Princess of Sicilia has returned and the two kings can be reconciled. There follows the wedding of Perdita and Florizel; though that is not the end of the story as Leontes is led by Paulina to see a new statue of Hermione who suddenly comes to life. She has been in hiding for sixteen years (would you believe?), forgives Leontes and the family are reunited once again.

Those in the know can see how the plot of The Winter’s Tale ‘samples’ – amongst other ballets – Mayerling (especially in showing the heavily-pregnant Hermione dancing extraordinarily well for someone in her condition) and Hamlet in Act I; to Giselle, La Fille mal gardée and a hint of Le Corsaire in Act II. Also in Act III, after some familiar wedding celebrations, Paulina is revealed to be rather like The Sleeping Beauty’s Lilac Fairy, as she guides the king back to his faithful, still living, wife. There is a final heart-wrenching pas de deux as Leontes and Hermione rediscover their lost love for one another when it might also make you think about Romeo and Juliet in the tomb.  Crowley and Wheeldon end on a thought-provoking moment as we see the statue of their dead son Mamillius centre stage … Leontes’s sins have not entirely been absolved!

Bob Crowley’s designs mix original images with evocatively Romantic paintings (apparently) by Caspar David Friedrich, though they took more like those of Bob Ross of The Joy of Painting fame. During Act I four statues illustrate Leontes’s fevered imaginings about what his wife has been getting up to with Polixenes. Costumes are simple gowns for most of the women, militaristic uniforms at the court of Sicilia, to a suitably ethnic – somewhat hippyish – look for the Bohemians. Interestingly, Perdita in Act II is dressed in purplish-blue to mirror Hermione in Act I. The ships are shown on the raging seas through Daniel Brodie’s video projection and the waves themselves are recreated by some billowing silk. There seems to be an interesting juxtaposition of Poseidon and Shakespeare’s bear at the end of Act I, though I wasn’t certain I saw either and, truthfully, on the cinema screen much of the act was rather too dark.

There is geographical fluidity to what we see and we are never shown a real country and this is reflected in Joby Talbot’s eclectic score (animatedly conducted by Koen Kessels and well played by the orchestra) which seems like film music with the movement layered on it, rather than inspiring it. It often had a percussive insistency which reflected Leontes’s torment well, though it may not have – even with all its Greek colours – the lyricism necessary for the more pastoral moments with the two lovers, Perdita and Florizel.

The composer – who previously collaborated with Wheeldon on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – distinguished the three acts as follows in 2014: ‘Act I has this musical language that is quite taut and troubled. In Act II we really want an absolute change … beautiful music, sets, costumes, just a lovely, lovely experience … Act III is very emotional, very lovely, we need to feel everything has led to this place … now the music is freer to express itself.’

Matthew Ball (Leontes) © Alice Pennefather

For Leontes (Matthew Ball), Hermione (Marianela Nuñez) and Paulina (Mayara Magri) Wheeldon’s choreography eschewed much identifiable classical movement for something more modern, stylistic, and with plenty of gymnastic contortions: there is also a lot of semaphoring and clenched fists to denote jealously and distress. It is to their credit, and of the choreographer too, that Ball, Nuñez and Magri had me totally believing in the motivation for their characters’ actions. Lukas B. Brændsrød as Polixenes was almost as good but he is given less to work with. In Act I when Hermione encourages both the men in her life to feel her baby move this is the pivotal moment which ignites Leontes’s unreasoning jealousy. Here we see it vividly reflected by Ball’s writhing body and – as Wheeldon described it – spidery fingers which are shown ‘piercing’ Leontes’s heart.

The Bohemian characters are more traditional and the entire company excel om this act. Yasmine Nagdhi’s Perdita is full of joie de vivre and clearly besotted with Marcelino Sambé’s love-struck prince. At this point they have little to do but appear in love and we believe they are; Nagdhi and Sambé they are light, airy dancers and Wheeldon gives them some ebullient choreography: very lovingly a couple of times Perdita winds herself about Florizel’s shoulders and kisses him as she lowers herself down.

Even more charismatic and eye-catching were Liam Boswell as the shepherd’s son and Marianna Tsembenhoi as his girlfriend and they danced very attractively together. I once spotted a very young Marcelino Sambé step out from the corps de ballet crowd and I announced him as one to watch and I now do that for Marianna Tsembenhoi who – based on what I saw here – has a great future ahead of her.

The Winter’s Tale was given an exception performance by a stellar cast: Matthew Ball and Marianela Nuñez are possibly The Royal Ballet’s current leading dancers; both are charismatic, technically precise and show great dramatic depths. It was a lineup replete with impeccable actor-dancers, notably Mayara Magri, Lukas B. Brændsrød, Yasmine Nagdhi and Marcelino Sambé. These superb artists cannot dance at every performance, so I hope those on other nights will match their very high standard, though I don’t think they always will.

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: Lukas B. Brændsrød (Polixenes), Marianela Nuñez (Hermione), and Matthew Ball (Leontes) © Alice Pennefather

Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Music – Joby Talbot
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting designer – Natasha Katz
Silk Effects designer – Basil Twist
Projection designer – Daniel Brodie
Associate designer – Jaime Todd
Staging – Jacquelin Barrett and Christopher Saunders

Leontes – Matthew Ball
Hermione – Marianela Nuñez
Perdita – Yasmine Naghdi
Mamillius – Rafferty Smale
Paulina – Mayara Magri
Antigonus – Harris Bell
Polixenes – Lukas B. Brændsrød
Florizel – Marcelino Sambé
Steward – Aiden O’Brien
Father Shepherd – Thomas Whitehead
Brother Clown – Liam Boswell
Young Shepherdess – Marianna Tsembenhoi

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