The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon’s new work for The Royal Ballet, is half rushed, half lush. Adapting Shakespeare’s romance of jealousy and renewal, Wheeldon canters through the story’s early torments. It’s not until we reach the pastoral second act that the production finds room to breathe.
The Winter’s Tale is The Royal Ballet’s biggest undertaking this year: a full-length new ballet with a new score by Joby Talbot. Wheeldon reunites the music and design team behind his very popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and shows a similar readiness to conjure up stage effects. Shakespeare’s celebrated “exit, pursued by a bear” becomes a billowing silk wave – though the bear’s reaching claws aren’t visible from all parts of the house.
A brisk prologue introduces the kings Leontes of Sicilia and Polixenes of Bohemia, Leontes’ marriage to Hermione and the birth of their son Mamilius. It’s clear, streamlined storytelling, but the breakneck pace leaves these characters too anonymous, with rhubarbing gestures for friendship and love. Talbot’s music and Bob Crowley’s stylised, no-period costumes are efficient rather than evocative.
Leontes’ unreasoning jealousy strikes in a fine image: his hand on Hermione’s pregnant bump turns clawlike, a poisonous spider sending twists through the rest of Edward Watson’s writhing body. There are strong echoes of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, another ballet about a damaged monarch, without the same depth of context. We’ve already seen Lauren Cuthbertson’s pregnant Hermione joining in some brightly athletic choreography – so when Leontes starts manhandling her, it lacks contrast.
As the story moves from wintry Sicilia to Bohemia, the ballet opens up. Crowley’s set is a ravishing green tree, hung with golden charms. At once, we’re in a different world, warmly lit by Natasha Katz, accompanied by a hazy, curling flute solo. Perdita, the baby Leontes rejected, has grown up as a shepherdess, dancing with rippling lines and quirks of foot and elbow.
The Bohemians are, well, bohemian, all bolero jackets, floaty sleeves and touches of Greek folk dance. Dancing with Polixenes’ son Florizel, Perdita winds about his shoulders, and kisses him on the way back down. Sarah Lamb is a serene Perdita, all flowing line, while Steven McRae dances Florizel with ardent energy
Wheeldon’s fluent, classical choreography has some padding, but the atmosphere is wonderful, from the exuberant peasant dancing to the rich clatter of percussion and plucked strings in Talbot’s vivid music, conducted by David Briskin.
The last act brings Sicilia and Bohemia back together, uniting the production’s strengths and weaknesses. Shakespeare ends the ballet with the restoration of Hermione, but Wheeldon’s pas de deux can’t match the magic of its source.
This premiere comes as The Royal Ballet is under stress, in a season full of injuries and cast changes – The Winter’s Tale does have a second cast, but its debut has been postponed. There were no signs of strain on opening night. A strong company performance included Zenaida Yanowsky’s commanding Paulina, Valentino Zuchetti’s exuberant shepherd and Beatriz Stix-Brunell as a fleet-footed shepherdess.
In repertory until 8 May. Box office 020 7304 4000