BWW Review: THE WINTER'S TALE, Royal Opera House
Christopher Wheeldon's popular retelling of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale returns to the Royal Opera House stage for the third time in four years.
Of its many strengths, the meaty storytelling on display from the dancers of the Royal Ballet is its greatest selling point. It's done with such a wonderful clarity - not only thanks to Wheeldon's choreography. The emotional investment from the cast really takes this tale to the next level.
The story itself is not your typical wafty ballet fare. Act One contains a demanding narrative: childhood friends Leontes and Polixenes are reunited when Polixenes comes to visit Leontes's kingdom of Sicilia. Together with Leontes's pregnant wife Hermione they have a whale of a time, dancing and celebrating - until Leontes becomes fixated on the idea that Hermione is carrying Polixenes's child and not his own.
Leontes has her imprisoned and brought to trial after the baby is born. The couple's elder child Mamillius dies from the stress of it all, swiftly followed by Hermione herself. That's just Act One - yet it is all done so neatly now, the production refuses to suffocate under the pressure.
Lauren Cuthbertson reprises her role as the original Hermione. She is an eternally stoic and elegant figure, remaining calm in the face of her husband's terrifying accusations. Her dignity is never in question, and her movements so crisp and pure no one sane could ever question her fidelity.
Ryoichi Hirano's Leontes is a frosty and isolated figure. He begins pleasantly enough with the early Sicilia frivolity, but his descent into madness is truly menacing - even more so against the bleak backdrop of his kingdom created by Bob Crowley. The violent choreography at the height of his madness is engrossing and wracked with danger as he twists, turns and seethes.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Wheeldon's ballet is the opportunity for dancers to take ownership of a character. Each one has their own complexities and allows for personal nuances to put a stamp on the performance.
Laura Morera's Paulina is the understated heroine of the piece, ably propping up these regal figures in their moment of turmoil. In Act One she is Hermione's right-hand woman, and a pillar of strength in her darkest hour. In Act Three she nobly stands by the grieving King Leontes. A lesser actress might allow her to fall into the background, but Morera is a steely woman of conviction.
Following the intensity and darkness of Act One, Act Two is a welcome and joyful affair, enhanced further by the wonderfully bright performances of Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov (the latter stepping in for an injured Steven McRae) as Leontes and Polixenes's offspring, now 16 years later.
Lamb is delicate and girlish in the presence of a playful Muntagirov, who bounces around with a well-channelled energy. Marcelino Sambé is a hip-swaggering scene-stealer as the brother shepherd.
Overall, Wheeldon's reimagining of Shakespeare's tale has developed into an engrossing and visually engaging evening of two very contrasting halves before the tale is neatly tied up in Act Three. It's aided by the numerous strong individual performances that only the Royal Ballet can boast, and with many shows sold out, it's clearly already an audience favourite.
The Winter's Tale runs at the Royal Opera House until 21 March
Image credit: Tristram Kenton