Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter's Tale (created for The Royal Ballet in 2014) is back on the Covent Garden stage this month and, much to my delight, the ballet is as fresh and pristine second time around. This month marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and this revival is The Royal Ballet’s contribution to worldwide celebrations of the playwright’s formidable legacy.

Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione) © ROH | Johan Persson (2014)
Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione)
© ROH | Johan Persson (2014)

Shakespeare’s oeuvre provides unparalleled drama, ample opportunities for glorious corps work through court celebrations and pastoral gatherings, epic duels and perfect scenarios for tender pas de deux work with consuming affairs of the heart often taking centre stage. There is scope for character interpretation in the Shakespeare ballets, which greatly contributes to their appeal. Though his most famous works have inspired choreographers time and again (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and, more recently, Othello at American Ballet Theatre) none before Wheeldon had tackled The Winter’s Tale. The choreographer does a fine job of laying the complex plot into three distinct, polished and crease-free tableaux. It’s not the most straightforward play to transpose into movement, with a tragic succession of events forecasting a potentially doomed ending, and an unexpected about-turn that veers towards an “all's well that ends well” moral.

Wheeldon locks the intrigue in the first act, which sees Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Federico Bonelli), visiting his long time friend Leontes, King Of Sicily (Edward Watson), his wife Hermione (Lauren Cuthbertson) and their young son. The footwork is fluid, the épaulements joyful, movements stemming from a place of contentment. Ladies waltz and swirl to Jody Talbot’s delectable melodies and sinuate their way around Bob Crowley’s eloquent neoclassical colonnades and Canova-inspired delicate statues. Every step is polished. So much so that the choreography for the leading trio (which perfectly conveys ambiguity around Hermione’s pregnancy) comes as a surprise. It becomes the catalyst for Leontes’ spiral into ruthlessness.

Edward Watson (Leontes) © ROH | Johan Persson (2014)
Edward Watson (Leontes)
© ROH | Johan Persson (2014)
Watson is excellent throughout, his charisma channelled into the permeable turmoil of emotions that pours out of the character. His assured performance is steady, measured and carefully tempered, so that each flick of a leg, twist of a wrist or movement towards his wife (whom he accuses of unfaithfulness) or Polixenes (whom he believes has fathered her child) becomes an expression of anger, pain and resentment. Watson’s character embodies the timeless venom of consuming pride and his honour crushes not just his wife (whom he imprisons) but also their son, whose frail nature succumbs under the pressure of witnessing his parents’ world collapse. The curtain closes on Act I with Hermione’s newborn girl abandoned on the shores of a tempestuous sea, and later found by shepherds who raise her as their own.

Act II startlingly contrasts the austerity of Act I. Crowley’s truly stunning designs here ooze colour and joie de vivre (a wonderful giant tree sits proudly at the rear of the stage, bohemian charms hanging from deliciously green branches on which rest ladders for folk to climb up). Natasha Katz's perfectly nuanced lighting shines a kaleidoscopic rainbow of pastel tones onto the lavish scenery. This bohemian act offers a refreshing divertissement: dance for the sake of dance. Fresh, joyful and delightful dancing – Wheeldon brings back narrative ballet's backbone and it’s refreshing. A treat. Ensemble dances, led by the sparkling Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Valentino Zucchetti, introduce the now grown-up princess, Perdita (Sarah Lamb), and Florizel (Steven McRae), Polixenes’ son. In love, the youngsters decide to get married. They run away in the face of Polixenes’ disapproval of his son marrying a sheperdess, fleeing to Sicily to seek the protection of Leontes.

Act III seals the intrigue. Eaten by his own demons, Leontes seeks redemption. A shadow of his old self, he mourns by a statue of his wife and son (Cuthbertson dances off the pedestal here, and reunites with Leontes).

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Act II © ROH | Johan Persson (2014)
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Act II
© ROH | Johan Persson (2014)

The original cast, brought together again, is excellent. There’s a humility to Watson’s performance that touches me directly. He is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished dancers of his generation, one of the best worldwide. His performance was perfectly mirrored by that of Zenaida Yanowsky, magnificent as Paulina (head of Hermione’s household and her friend) who is the only character left by Leontes at the beginning of Act III. Yanowsky’s poise commands the stage, singular elegance emanating from every one of her steps. Lauren Cuthbertson is a joy to watch, her Hermione fresh, delicate, and incredibly touching. It’s a pleasure to see her own the floor and dance so wholeheartedly.

Praise goes to Joby Talbot for his excellent score, which perfectly supports and enhances Wheeldon’s dance. Their collaboration is a true symbiosis. Like a master’s palette, Talbot’ score is rich in contrasts, and layered like a millefeuille; creamy here, crisp there, opaque yet delicate… rich but never heavy… lyrical finesse.