The Royal Ballet Dance The Winter’s Tale
Among the plays by Shakespeare we studied in first year English at University, The Winter’s Favourite was the least well liked. Putting aside its great length, a feature scarcely likely to endear it to undergraduates, and the apparent weirdness of the plot (how seriously are we to take what seems to be a resurrection scene?), the lecturer made clear his distaste for the play, concluding his discussion by dismissing it as a load of old rubbish. Himself an interesting figure who went on to become a well regarded author of crime fiction (The Death of an Old Goat remains a very successful and funny roman a cle), his ill-disguised contempt for the play licenced our hostility towards it. Oddly enough our tutor at about that time advised us only to write essays about texts we liked, wise advice that suggested that silence may have been in order.
But Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and if aspects of the play show him at less than top form his language remains as wonderful as ever. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins.’ It’s been said that Shakespeare’s sense of words allowed him to use them in ways that express the full resonance the individual words acquired across the whole history of English. Such considerations make a ballet based on one of his plays problematic, for if the genius of ballet is to allow emotion to be displayed visually, its complete absence of speech must strip a play of what is most essential to it.
It was with these thoughts that I attended a ballet of The Winter’s Tale performed by the Royal Ballet (choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Jody Talbot) The jealousy of Leontes and his consequent loneliness was given powerful expression, and the hint of physical violence against Hermione was enough to make one cringe. (There was a strong suggestion of Hermione flirting with Polixenes which I don’t think is present in the original.) The festivities of the peasants in Bohemia were suitably joyous, with rustic musicians on the stage joining the orchestral music; the love of Perdita and Florizel was beautifully evoked.
All in all, it was striking how moving the Winter’s Tale remained in a non-verbal presentation. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those of us who spend hours trying to make sense of things by reading and occasionally writing. In some ways the primacy of the word that has distinguished western culture and of which Shakespeare stands at the top is ebbing, and it is extraordinary how much of what he has to say survives in a format in which nothing is said.