The Winter’s Tale is sometimes classed as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” with its odd juxtaposition of psychological drama and comedy followed by an abruptly contrived happy ending. Ryan Wigglesworth’s operatic version, though stripping away too much of the verse, was a fine achievement last season at ENO but Christopher Wheeldon’s 2014 ballet, earning its second revival here in London, solves more of the play’s problems than other treatments. Music and dance retain the work’s poetry but in a tightly condensed form.

Ryoichi Hirano (Leontes) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione) © Tristram Kenton
Ryoichi Hirano (Leontes) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione)
© Tristram Kenton

A Prologue amid flurries of snow swiftly provides all the backstory we require. Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, have been best friends since childhood. Act 1 takes place in the gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Sicilian court, where Polixenes is about to depart after a nine-month visit. Leontes’ queen, Hermione, begs Polixenes to extend his stay, at which point the seed of suspicion poisons Leontes’ mind and he accuses his best friend of fathering Hermione’s unborn child. Polixenes flees and, when the baby girl is born, Leontes orders it to be taken far away and abandoned. At the sudden death of their son, Mamilllius, the distraught Hermione dies.

The baby, Perdita, is raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where – sixteen years later – she is courted by Polixenes’ son, Florizel, disguised as a shepherd. The Bohemian king rages against his son’s lowly choice, at which point Florizel and Perdita flee, arriving in… yes, Sicilia, where Perdita’s true identity is discovered and Leontes and Polixenes are reunited in friendship. In a shock denouement, the statue of Hermione comes to life, the queen having been saved by the noblewoman Paulina, and is restored to Leontes and their daughter.

Sarah Lamb (Perdita) and Vadim Muntagirov (Florizel) © Tristram Kenton
Sarah Lamb (Perdita) and Vadim Muntagirov (Florizel)
© Tristram Kenton

Even in abridged form, there’s a lot of plot to digest, but Wheeldon propels the action coherently, aided by Joby Talbot’s wonderful score, full of rhythmic hooks, driven along purposefully by Alondra de la Parra with bags of energy. Shakespeare’s most famous stage instruction – Exit pursued by a bear – is conjured up via Basil Twist’s ingenious billowing silk sheet. Wheeldon also adds a clever prop, an emerald necklace which Leontes gives to Hermione that, in turn, is left in the baby’s basket, the means by which Paulina – in a touching moment – recognises Perdita in Act 3. Talbot brilliantly contrasts the moody Sicilian court with the carefree Pantheistic mood of Bohemian shepherds in Act 2 where his infectious score includes an on-stage band featuring flute, accordion and cimbalom for festive dances with a distinctly Balkan feel. Bob Crowley’s designs are magnificent, pillars and marble statues for Sicilia, blue skies and a wishing tree bedecked with ribbons and jewels for springtime in Bohemia. It really is a ballet for all seasons.

Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione) and Ryoichi Hirano (Leontes) © Tristram Kenton
Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione) and Ryoichi Hirano (Leontes)
© Tristram Kenton

For this revival, there were three significant holes from the original cast to be filled: due to injury, Ed Watson and Steven McRae had been forced to withdraw from performances as Leontes and Florizel respectively; and Zenaida Yanowsky’s retirement from the company last summer meant a new Paulina. Ryoichi Hirano stepped into Watson’s shoes as Leontes, given his greatest challenge in Act 1. Flute and percussion slither and hiss as Hirano’s Leontes writhed with suspicion, doubt gnawing away at his reason leading to his denunciation of Hermione. Splayed hands and jerky movements against a frozen tableau present a brilliant psychological portrait of the character’s descent into madness. As yet, Hirano has yet to plumb the tortured depths of the role, but responds well to Wheeldon’s muscular choreography. He handles Lauren Cuthbertson’s noble Hermione like porcelain in their tender Act 3 pas de deux. Cuthbertson, who created the role, was incredibly touching, turning graceful arabesques in the opening act.

Vadim Muntagirov’s fleet-footed Florizel and Sarah Lamb’s open-hearted Perdita brought the necessary dash of sunshine to Bohemia, while Matthew Ball danced Polixenes with flair and Marcelino Sambé gave us a firecracker of a Brother Clown. Paulina is a good fit for Laura Morera, her noblewoman shifting from a quiet, unassuming presence at the start – barely noticed – to feisty outrage at the death of her mistress. In Act 3, as Leontes’ devoted support, she presented a character of great dignity, softly manipulating Wheeldon’s touching denouement.

****1