The Winter’s Tale, Royal Ballet: Better than Shakespeare? Better believe it

A mutually generous, warm-as-toast partnership: Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in The Winter's Tale
A mutually generous, warm-as-toast partnership: Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in The Winter's Tale - Alastair Muir/amx

The Winter’s Tale is the most important British ballet so far this millennium. Its arrival in April 2014 thrillingly proved what Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also by prodigious choreographer Christopher Wheeldon) had strongly suggested three years earlier: that the phenomenon of the brand-new, full-evening, neo-classical dance-work had never looked more alive or exciting.

This felt all the more remarkable given that not since Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, in 1978, had a new three-act tragedy gone on to become a cornerstone of the Royal Ballet’s repertory; and not since 1965, and the same choreographer’s Romeo and Juliet, had anyone achieved this by turning to Shakespeare. Here, suddenly, was a work that actually improves on the original.

From its marvellously economical prologue to desperately bittersweet close, it alchemises a tonally wonky play (three serious acts, followed by two lighter ones) into an effortlessly enjoyable 2 hrs 45 minutes of narrative ballet in which the high drama of Acts I and III are perfectly offset by the citrus-coloured, dance-filled sorbet of Act II.

Both broadly and in countless details, it honours Wheeldon’s rich Royal Ballet training and tradition, but is also effervescently of the 21st century. All of which is to say that this third revival (delayed, I suspect, by the grimly fallow era of lockdowns) is a thing to be celebrated, especially with so many talented new faces now taking the leads – even if a glance at the synopsis before curtain-up is recommended.

Crystalline as the storytelling is – all credit not only to the physical punch and character-driven articulacy of Wheeldon’s steps, but also to scintillating work from Bob Crowley (design), Natasha Katz (lighting) and composer Joby Talbot – this story of jealousy and tragedy, love and (partial) reunion is involved for a ballet, and the list of dramatis personae is long. But my, does it reward that minute’s homework beforehand – and what a mesmerising collective effort last night’s opening night proved.

As previously, I do wonder if Act I serves up a little too much of Leontes, King of Sicilia, going off the rails as he convinces himself that his wife Hermione’s unborn baby is not his, but his dear friend Polixenes’s. However, debutant Cesar Corrales brings such uningratiating bite to Wheeldon’s suddenly spiky steps, lends such a sinister edge to moments such as his own hand, scorpion-like, seeming to sting him in the heart, that you are never less than gripped. He also injects real venom into the scenes of violence towards Leontes’s blameless, visibly pregnant queen (Lauren Cuthbertson, serenely resuming the role she created 10 years ago), which are necessarily, I think, but also unprecedentedly upsetting.

Unfolding around Crowley’s magnificent “great tree”, the sun-kissed second act is set in Bohemia, by which point Leontes and Hermione’s long-banished daughter Perdita is now 16 and in love with Prince Florizel. Always a mutually generous, warm-as-toast partnership, Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé (another debutant) make their scenes together bubble with physical ease and joie de vivre – and last night, he also had to be on form so as not to be upstaged by lowly but scene-stealing first artist Marco Masciari as the peacocking shepherd’s son Brother Clown.

If this technically sharp, swaggeringly virile, fabulously comic turn is anything to go by, we have a genuine star-to-be on our hands. Praise too for young Rafferty Smale as the doomed child Mamillius, and for two further newcomers in pivotal roles. Calvin Richardson makes a superb Polixenes, his charismatic physicality going a long way to explain Leontes’s fears about him and Hermione, while Melissa Hamilton suits the role of Paulina hand-in-glove, an ideally dulcet foil to Leontes’s very male madness.

In short, whatever your thoughts on ballet (or indeed Shakespeare), do go and see this show. It’s an emotional and aesthetic banquet – and, with tickets starting at just £8, you frankly have no excuse not to.

In rep until June 1. Tickets: 020 7304 4000;