Edward Watson as Leontes, Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione and Federico Bonelli as Polixenes © ROH / Johan Persson, 2014
Edward Watson as Leontes, Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione and Federico Bonelli as Polixenes
© ROH / Johan Persson, 2014

It was there – but not in the furry form I anticipated. I clearly remember the Exit pursued by bear instructions of William Shakespeare, from my teenage years when I saw The Winters Tale at the Old Vic with a very sweet, young actress called Judi Dench making her début in the role of Perdita. And the moment when Antigonus, the King’s servant, gets chased by the bear, leaving the infant princess to die.

But here, in the first ballet version of the rarely seen play, inventive choreographer Christopher Wheeldon turns the creature into a silken curtain (apparently decorated with claw markings though not visible from many seats), that billows larger and larger until it looms like a gigantic tsunami wave over the fleeing Antigonus.

The Winter’s Tale is Wheeldon’s second full-length ballet (he created the very popular Alice in Wonderland three years ago) and it is the first Shakespearean play in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire since Kenneth MacMillan’s worldwide success, Romeo and Juliet. And you have to admit that the young man from Somerset certainly has vision and talent. This production is beautiful to look at, has interesting, atmospheric, commissioned music, showcases six principal dancers and some promising pint-sized dancers from the Royal Ballet School.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione and Edward Watson as  Leontes © ROH / Johan Persson, 2014
Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione and Edward Watson as Leontes
© ROH / Johan Persson, 2014
The play is one of Shakespeare’s wordiest, with much of the past action spoken off stage – a challenge in both cases for the silent art of ballet. However Wheeldon handles this well, telling the tale faithfully while cutting out some characters. He encapsulates the intricate prologue, by showing, on a dimly lit stage and with fast moving interaction, the deep friendship from childhood of the two Kings – Leontes of Silicia and Polixenes of Bohemia; the love, then marriage of Leontes to Hermione, to whom he gives a beautiful emerald necklace; and the subsequent arrival of son Mamillius. Suddenly the stage becomes brightly lit, and we see in the close entwinings and outstretched embraces how the royal couple’s love has deepened and endured. To Leontes’ joy, Polixenes comes to visit, staying for nine months, just long enough for Hermione to be padded up with a bump showing her pregnancy. And thus starts the cycle of mad jealousies, accusations and violent behaviour that consumes Leontes’ tortured mind. He condemns Hermione to be imprisoned, the newborn girl baby to be killed. His young son falls dead and so seemingly does Hermione. The final scene of Act One is of the tsunami bear and the baby with necklace tucked into the cradle, being found by a shepherd. The dark emotions and despair of this act are set amongst stark white moving statues and pillars, a long staircase and an abstract backdrop, on which are projected recurring storm scenes.

Sarah Lamb as Perdita and Steven McRae as Florizel © ROH / Johan Persson, 2014
Sarah Lamb as Perdita and Steven McRae as Florizel
© ROH / Johan Persson, 2014

In sharp contrast, Act Two is non-stop joyous dance, set in the sunny technicolour lushness of Bohemia during springtime festivities. Young Perdita is now sixteen and in love with Florizel whom she believes a shepherd, but who is really the son of Polixenes. The bucolic scenes start on the beach in front of a huge spreading tree with mango-swamp roots – the tree later becomes a ‘wish-tree’, brightly decorated with colourful papers and ribbons during the revels. Here, to the accompaniment of a lone flute player, Perdita dances with abandoned joy, awaiting the arrival of her lover. The scene fills with dances and costumes that are reminiscent of Greek, Balkan, and Slavic folk traditions and Wheeldon’s choreography is appealing and lively – though a tad too long. Crowned May Queen, Perdita’s shepherd ‘father’ gives her the sparkling necklace found in her cradle. The revelation of Florestan’s true heritage sees the couple flee from the country and they land – where else? – in Silicia and are taken to the court of Leontes. Here, the faithful Paulina, who has kept watch over the anguished king recognizes, in a spine-tingling moment, the emerald around Perdita’s neck. Father and daughter are reunited. Then Polixenes arrives after chasing his son, meets Leontes again and forgives him, and they both give their blessing to the young couple. To conclude the story on a happy note, the statue of Hermione comes to life – the Queen has been hidden and protected by her servant Paulina – and the whole family is joyfully united together.

Wheeldon gives Edward Watson some meaty dancing as Leontes, and his performance is strong and powerful. Loving in his first duets with Hermione, he later fairly bristles with anger and false suspicion, with hands that beat together, sharp quick jumps bouncing up from an unseen springboard, and a pained and grimaced expression. Lauren Cuthbertson was a gracious Queen with a serene and loving presence that is unable to comprehend her husband’s accusations of adultery. Her technique is silky smooth, pure and illuminating – even when, as the pregnant Hermione, her ‘bump’ was squashed and pulled up during her duets with the two kings!

Steven McRae as Florizel © ROH / Johan Persson, 2014
Steven McRae as Florizel
© ROH / Johan Persson, 2014

As Perdita, Sarah Lamb also showed exemplary technique, though she looked more a regal princess than a rustic shepherd’s daughter in both costume – a fluid dress from Balanchine’s Serenade, which contrasted with the other girls’ folk costumes – and her classical style, despite her countryside upbringing. Steven McRae’s Florizel, on the other hand, relished rural life, exuberantly entering into the folk dancing, showing off his great talent to leap and turn. Dressed in orange ‘jeans’, ochre shirt and turquoise bolero, he could have come straight from the set of Mama Mia. Valentino Zucchetti impressed with his daring dancing as Brother Clown, and the company of shepherds and shepherdesses exuberantly performed in their many different – though somewhat classical – folk dances. Zenaida Yanowsky gave a strong performance as Paulina, a Mrs Danby figure, solicitous for the care of her mistress and ever watchful at the results of the false accusations and remorse of the king.

It is evident that Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet have another hit on their hands. The ballet is long and could do with some tightening but it is very entertaining and Wheeldon and his team have created what surely will become a popular 21st century production which celebrates the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.