|"Pursued by a Bear" Royal Ballet "A Winter's Tale" 12 April 2014|
I expected so much of The Winter's Tale. I had been looking forward to it for months. A new work by Christopher Wheeldon based on Shakespeare by a fine choreographer for our national company with a stellar cast. It should have blown me off my feet. Well I quite liked the show but blown off my feet? I wasn't.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. Had I thought about it more I would have concluded that Shakespeare is very difficult to set to ballet. I can think of only two ballets based on Shakespeare that really work. One is Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet and the other is Cranko's Taming of the Shrew (see "Stuttgart Ballet's "Taming of the Shrew" - well worth the Wait" 25 Nov 2013). Northern Ballet's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" also works but only because Nixon has gutted the play and written his own plot based on a post war touring company's train journey to Edinburgh (see "Realizing Another Dream" 15 Sept 2013). Had I thought more about the topic I would have reminded myself that A Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's least performed and least read plays and that is for a reason. It is best known for the stage direction for Antigonus: "Exit pursued by a bear." A Winter's Tale is not one of Shakespeare's best works and it is very difficult to get into.
And so it was on Saturday with the ballet. Now I have to say that I was not in the most receptive frame of mind when I entered the Royal Opera House. I had a horrible journey down to London and I had been working late throughout the previous night. I had skipped breakfast and had only a light lunch. Consequently I was tired and hungry. Had I not paid a lot of money for my ticket I would have gone straight to bed. Moreover, the reason that I had to work through the night was that I had spent a couple of hours in Huddersfield town hall listening to the Choral's performing one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended or am ever likely to attend. It may be that anything after that concert was going to be an anticlimax.
I say all this because Act I left me quite cold. Well perhaps not quite cold because Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson are always exciting and Bob Crawley's designs were impressive, especially the galleon in full sale. But the story was very heavy going and the accompanying music by Joby Talbot did not help. The ballet is very long. It starts at 19:30 and ends at 22:30 and the longest bit is Act I which lasts 49 minutes.
Act II is very different. Set around a gnarled moss covered tree there is a festival with exuberant dancing accompanied by the most infectiously vibrant music. Perdita danced by Sarah Lamb and Florizel by Stephen McRae fall in love. They are spied on and discovered by Polixenes, king of Bohemia, who threatens to kill them but they set sail to Sicily with the king of Bohemia in hot pursuit. Little details like the fact that Bohenia is landlocked don't seem to have bothered Shakespeare or even Wheeldon. However there is such a thing as poetic licence and this is a case where it applies. Nevertheless, this is is the best bit of the ballet and that is possibly because it is the part that owes least to Shakespeare.
The final Act like the first is set in Sicily with a chastened Leontes (Watson) visiting the graves of Hermione and their son. The Act ends with his visiting a statue of Hermione who suddenly springs to life Don Juan style - oh brother - but she, her daughter Perfita and Loeontes reconcile in a most beautiful pas de trois which prompted the lady next to me to fish for a tissue and even I found moving.
So did this ballet live up to expectations? Well not exactly. But it was not bad. I want to see it again but I want to take a break before I do. It will be broadcast on HDTV to cinemas around the nation on 28 April.