The launch of The Winter’s Tale coincides with the 450th anniversary celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. And it follows in the footsteps of a number of ballets based on Shakespeare plays.

But this is the first time that the Royal Ballet has created a full-length version of a Shakespeare play since Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 1965. 

Why has it taken so long?

“Covent Garden has a pretty good track record with Shakespeare ballets,” says Debra Craine, chief dance critic of The Times. “They did, most famously, The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s adaptation (of A Midsummer Night's Dream) although that was one act.

“It’s very hard to do a full-length ballet. It’s incredibly expensive, and you need a sure-fire story. I think what’s brave about this is that The Winter’s Tale isn’t the obvious Shakespeare ballet, but it’ll certainly be distinctive and different.”

The Winter’s Tale is sometimes known as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, because of its complexity. It’s a deep psychological drama about love and jealousy - yet it has a redeeming ending.

So it must have been a challenge for choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to make it into a ballet.

“The first thing any choreographer has to do with Shakespeare is streamline the plot because these plays are full of side characters, sub-plots, all kinds of raucous and theatrical activity, and dance can’t deal with a lot of subjects,” says Craine.

“There are no mothers-in-law in dance, because how do you describe that in movement? What dance does fantastically well is portray great characters revealing operatic-size emotions.

“So a play like The Winter’s Tale,which is about love and betrayal and forgiveness and romance and tragedy, is absolutely perfect; if you take away everything else and focus on the essential tale of Leontes and Hermione, you get a incredibly balletic, suitable scenario.”

Edward Watson, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, will dance the role of King Leontes.

Critics are looking forward to his interpretation.

“Here’s a king who actually goes mad and becomes so insanely jealous that he condemns his wife to death for an infidelity she didn’t commit,” says Craine. “Edward Watson is one of the most intense, dramatic dancers at the Royal Ballet, who’s already cut his teeth on the great Macmillan tormented heroes.”

Watson himself says he accessed the powerful feelings of jealousy experienced by King Leontes through the choreography.

“The movement goes from being very classical to something strange and twisted and confused,” he says. “So that was my way in really, so the physical and emotional side come as one.

“I understand jealousy, everybody understands jealousy of some degree, but not to the point that you condemn your own wife and ruin everybody else’s lives because of it.”

 I put it to Edward that the role of King Leontes sounds very dark.

“It’s incredibly dark and I feel like there’s this big, black cloud over my head the whole time,” he says. “It’s tough to live with every day. 

“It also happens really quickly – it’s not a condition, he’s not mad, he’s just completely consumed by this jealousy. Also he snaps out of it just as quickly when realises how ridiculous the whole thing is – when his son is dead and his wife is dead and it’s because of this ridiculous emotion.

“So it is a massive journey, which is kind of amazing to tell.”

Dance is also a way to show what Shakespeare was saying without getting caught up in the tricky language.

“That language can often be difficult to understand if you’re not used to it,” says Watson, “especially in The Winter’s Tale, the language is very difficult. So to show what people are talking about, rather than having to listen and understand, is actually a very clear way of storytelling.

“Especially in The Winter’s Tale, a lot of things are just spoken about, you don’t see the event happen, somebody will describe what has happened.

“Whereas in dance you can show – you have to show the event because you don’t have the words, so in a way, some things are clearer.”

Not all Shakespeare plays work well for ballet. I asked critic Debra Craine which adaptations she saw as hits – and which as misses. 

“The ones for me that have failed have tried to become too interior,” she says. “So that makes Hamlet a tricky ballet – so much of that play is going on in Hamlet’s head. You can’t really show what goes in someone’s head.

“So it’s why Romeo and Juliet is probably the most choreographed ballet of the 20th century, because what could be simpler?

“Star-crossed lovers, they want to be together, torn apart – it’s just full of all that passion and emotional momentum.

“The appeal of Shakespeare is that the characters are real and they’re strong enough to translate to the dance stage. He wrote characters as strong as anything Hollywood has ever produced.”

Dance fans have yet to see whether The Winter’s Tale will work as well as Romeo and Juliet on the ballet stage.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has said that, like Macmillan, he wants to infuse the poetry of Shakespeare into the movement, and not just use the plotline.

Dancers like Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson, who will dance the role of Hermione, are some of the most expressive and nuanced performers the Royal Ballet has.

So if anyone can put poetry into motion, it’s them.

(VoR)

The production also stars Steven Mcrae and Sarah Lamb as Florizel and Perdita, and Federico Bonelli and Zenaida Yanowsky as Polixenes and Paulina. Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares lead the second cast as Leontes and Hermione.