Whenever I am watching a full length narrative ballet, there is only one question uppermost in my mind; do I know what is going on here? I ask myself, is the storytelling in this piece clear and strong enough for me to be able to tell what’s going on, even without prior knowledge of the story or careful reading of the programme notes? 

David Bintley’s production of The Tempest for Birmingham Royal Ballet comes very close to passing my storytelling test. A faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s late, great work, it manages to capture (most) of the events in the complex plot and also something of its atmosphere. The Tempest is a play drenched in nostalgia, loss and strange magic and contains some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry.

There are some clunky bits of confusion though. While it isn’t hard to work out that Ferdinand and Miranda are falling in love, nor to understand that Caliban is the unhappy servant of Prospero, it is more difficult to fully grasp some other subplots. Who is the bloke in the crown? (King Alonso.) Why is he grasping another crown to his chest? (Because he thinks his son, Ferdinand, is dead.) To be fair, these are details that are murky in many versions of this play, so it is hardly Bintley’s fault that these plot elements are not clear. However, it makes me wonder if there are relationships and situations which are not possible to portray in dance, a question I can only wonder at the answer to. When adapting stories as convoluted and occasionally improbable as Shakespeare’s often are, it’s perhaps not surprising that some bits get lost in translation.

It is not only Bintley’s storytelling powers that hit the spot, but also those of his composer, Sally Beamish. She entrances us from the very beginning of the overture with sounds of the sea and then ties a musical motif to each character as they dance that gives the whole ballet a feeling of satisfying all the senses. This conjoined music and storytelling is particularly powerful in the case of Caliban’s theme, drum heavy and rhythmical. Tyrone Singleton was outstanding as the miserable monster of Caliban, his heavy thudding gait and snarling face perfectly conveying the mix of revulsion and sympathy that this character provokes. 

Caliban was not the only character perfectly realised in this ballet. Iain Mackay was a magnetic figure as Prospero, showing his deep ambiguity, at once cruel and dignified.Jenna Roberts as Miranda and Joseph Caley as Ferdinand were delightful, bright and spry with some subtly beautiful pas de deux; but fittingly they stand apart from the real emotional heart of the ballet, which really belongs to Prospero and his complicated feelings towards his magical arts and the way he has spent his life. 

The highlight for me was the masque of act two, featuring spirits conjured by Prospero to celebrate the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand. Watching it, I suddenly understood why there are always divertissements at weddings in the last act of the big ‘warhorse’ ballets of the nineteenth century. Petipa was responding to ancient theatrical traditions that date back to the Renaissance dramas of Shakespeare and his European contemporaries and even beyond; to the amusements and spectacles inserted into the tragic plays of Athens in the fifth century BCE. For two thousand years, dramatists have been halting the action  at a wedding to put on a bit of a song and a dance, and it still works on stage. Bintley fills his with Greek gods and goddesses, spirits of the sea and air and a flying peacock, and the result is a new link in a long theatrical chain.

Rae Smith’s evocative and suitably kaleidoscopic designs really brought this genre bending story to life, with fabulous colours and visions of the sea never far away. However, I would question the decision to costume Ariel the enslaved sprite in Elizabethan doublet and hose. I’m not sure what some post colonial theorists would have made of the indigenous Ariel costumed in the garb of his oppressor, but a programme note on the design posits the theory that the spirits of the island are figments of Prospero’s imagination, and so he attires them as he sees fit. As with so many things Shakespeare, I suppose it’s all a matter of interpretation.

I was impressed at how Bintley seemed to be directly inspired by certain parts of the text in the movement he created. In the funny scene where the jester Trinculo (James Barton) and the drunk butler Stephano (Valentin Olovyannikov) meet Caliban and all become confused at what sort of creature might have two heads, I could feel the comic imagination of the Bard himself directing it. At other times, Bintley allows the dancers a stillness as if to give space for famous speeches to echo around the stage; as in act one, when Miranda is completely awestruck at seeing Ferdinand for the first time, "this is the third man that I e’er saw; the first that e’er I sigh’d for.’"

Even more powerfully, at the end of the ballet when all the assorted characters are thoroughly disentangled from the complications of the knotted plot, they all stand still as Prospero regards the audience as if silently soliloquising "Gentle breath of yours my sails/ must fill, or else my project fails/ which was to please." These words of Prospero’s epilogue are some of Shakespeare’s most famous, partly because scholars have been quick to imagine them in Shakespeare’s own mouth; as his farewell to the theatre, his audiences and signalling his retreat to prosperous retirement in Stratford upon Avon.

It is October, which means that there are only two months left of the year that marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and all the wonderful performances around the world to celebrate it. Although this year was the perfect time to premiere this ballet, it is one that deserves to be seen again soon. As far as I’m concerned, every year is a Shakespeare year.