Shakespeare is adaptation. The works we are left with penned by his hand are such an amalgam of differing versions, edited constructions and second-hand dictation it provides a tricky yet interesting argument that the modern versions of the plays we collect in Oxford, Cambridge or Norton Shakespeare’s aren’t the original exact texts that our greatest playwright/writer constructed himself. Shakespeare’s timeless study on the darkness, ridiculousness, love and tragedy that can inhabit our lives there have been fascinating and varied interpretations of the texts across the hundreds of years of performance. A popular and simple trait of late twentieth and twenty-first century performances has seen adaptations of setting to an alternative culture and time period. Naturally there are varying levels of success with this experiment, from ancient Japan and WWII to contemporary technology. Prince Hamlet would love twitter – #RIPOphelia 😦
To celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary Hogarth have commissioned their top authors to adapt a chosen play to their own narrative story; the first of which is Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a retelling of ‘The Winter’s Tale’. The most popular reaction to this statement I’ve witnessed is to declare no knowledge of that particular play. It is certainly one of the more obscure, lesser taught and performed pieces. This brings an interesting immediate split to the perspective readers of Winterson’s book, those who know the play and have studied it before (though a summary of the original is provided at the beginning of the book which is a useful addition) and those who approach it blind. I am on the former side, having read and studied the play before. It is certainly one of the most psychologically dark, magical and heightened of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
The most significant aspect of the play, and the most interesting to my eyes in terms of Winterson’s approach to the piece, is the treatment and portrayal of Leontes. He is a horrifying and disgusting character, certainly one of Shakespeare’s most despicable, yet the fairy tale conclusion to the play – providing Leontes with a debatably deserved/undeserving penitence and forgiveness – can perhaps sit uncomfortably to a modern audience. It certainly does with my own reading of the play, the shadow of the treatment of his wife and son looming large across the resulting lines of the story. Winterson takes a decidedly ambiguous and clever stance with her interpretation. Leo may not be forgiven, but he can find himself healed and saved from damaging others with his rapacious desires.
Winterson also tackles head on the issue surrounding these adaptations, turning a written piece of drama for performance into a prose narrative is an aspect that will be a fascinating element to see from the different authors, and how they interpret this problem. Winterson’s book transcends itself as a novel, layered with the meta-textual; ‘The Winter’s Tale’ itself is directly quoted by a character during this parallel story, all seemingly unaware of the relation, and Jeanette Winterson herself and her works as an author (a printed extract of MiMi’s Wikipedia page states the character had performed in a stage adaptation of a Winterson story). Winterson builds to a personal and meta-textual understanding of the existence of the play’s messages and its deeply flawed characters, culminating in a performance itself.
Winterson is clearly interested in constructed worlds and realities that humans escape into, the songs and dreamlike singing of Hermione (MiMi), the titular video game ‘The Gap of Time’ created by Xeno and the fictional history of Perdita’s heritage by Shep. It is this element that most resonates with the fate of Leontes, should he be forgiven, is he deserving of it? Shakespeare provides us with that ending, and many have interpreted it in a fascinating way – one particular performance emphasised this fantastical ending as Leontes’ mental breakdown, darkness consuming the other actors as they leave him on stage alone and ranting about his happiness. His dead and forgotten young son walking out to his father with a candle as they are encircled in a single light, the ghost blows the flame out and the stage fades to black.
Winterson’s novel is a brilliantly written, very readable, often funny and undoubtedly a Jeanette Winterson study on human grief, jealousy, sexuality and forgiveness. It is a fascinating start to the Hogarth series, and one I will be determined to follow, with Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler yet to come.