The Winter’s Tale is considered one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays, richer in texture than in vibrancy. However, The National Ballet’s powerful balletic adaptation of the work brushes the narrative with strikingly vivid colour, employing inventive choreography and impressive set design.
Adapted by acclaimed British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, the engrossing production carries its audience to an imaginary realm, exploring themes of jealousy and revenge, tragedy and redemption. The journey and destination equally enchant.
Following the roaring success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wheeldon’s second full-length production for The National Ballet provocatively demonstrates his skill. He brings a compelling vision to The Winter’s Tale, the story of a king driven to destroy his family by irrational jealousy but ultimately redeemed by compassion, fate and the power of forgiveness.
Wheeldon amasses an impeccable cast for this production, with dancers complementing one another’s skill sets while also capitalizing on opportunities to display individual artistry. Evan McKie (Leontes, King of Sicilia) is a standout, bringing the internal struggle of his character to the surface in his weighted jumps and tension-filled extensions. Masterfully wrestling with his emotions, he manifests a turmoil that tempts the audience toward sympathy. He also simultaneously embodies fragility and brute strength in his tenuous, yet extremely sustained, balances. Svetlana Lunkina (Paulina, Head of Queen Hermione’s Household) commands attention as well. Her exquisite and delicately articulate travelling work transfixes, essentially rendering the presence of other dancers in her company unseen. In a stunning show of talent, she flows across the stage in the opening moments of Act III as if being carefully controlled by a puppeteer.
Joby Talbot’s score also assists in developing the story of The Winter’s Tale, appropriately waxing and waning to support the tone established by the choreography. Incorporating layered rhythms and sweeping orchestral melodies, the production includes an onstage band in Acts II and III, along with pit musicians. There is a Roma influence to the score, which features flutes, drums and accordions. These instruments build on one another and particularly aid in bringing Act II to life. The folk influences in the music surface here and emphasize the exuberant Bohemian springtime festival, successfully immersing audiences in the charm of the moment. But this does not ring true for the entire production. Scores have potential to enhance pivotal moments, and unfortunately The Winter’s Tale misses some key opportunities, including the supposed death of the Queen in Act I.
In tune with the emotion conveyed through the choreography, the lavish and magical sets of The Winter’s Tale captivate. Engineered by Bob Crowley, who also led the costume design team, the sets seduce, providing a base for the other elements of the production to flourish and luring audiences into each scene. Images of turbulent seas recur in The Winter’s Tale. Crowley portrays a ship navigating through violent waters in innovative and evocative ways. Relying on projections and Basil Twist’s silk effects to facilitate these moments, the scenes encapsulate what it is to be at the mercy of unrelenting oceans, without once using a drop of real water. The Bohemian paradise erected for Act II beguiles. In an astonishing achievement, a dazzling, giant tree adorned with glittering objects hanging from its far-reaching branches serves as the foundation around which much of the action transpires. Statues, dramatically illuminated by lighting designer Natasha Katz, appear strategically throughout the production. They foreshadow the ending of the ballet where the King is reunited with the Queen, who has been secretly kept alive for sixteen years.
Although fans of Shakespeare’s play will detect the near absence of the bear, a classic element of stage direction used in the theatrical work, most traditional aspects are not sacrificed. The production honours the classical elements of the story while infusing it with bold hues of colour that resonate with a new generation of ballet enthusiasts.