House lights are down and Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time is playing. For a small moment I let myself wonder if Jeanette Winterson is going to do an interpretive dance. A guy with an iPad is two rows in front of me and if he is planning on filming the entire thing on that it’s really going to aggravate me. The crowd starts to froth away as the song runs right through. But as it comes to the end, there’s a hush … and Jeanette Winterson walks on stage. Uproar, applause. Rock star.
The voice of an actor begins, reciting Shakespeare. Jeanette is standing on stage, listening. ‘Nothing. Nothing is the key word in that piece – A Winter’s Tale is a post-Freudian play 300 years before Freud, because the motivation for the action is a damaged past and a superstitious mind. Why? What was Shakespeare trying to tell us?’ Finally, she speaks!
The Gap of Time is Jeanette’s (I’m feeling over-familiar, I’ll just call her Jeanette) “cover” of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. It’s one of his late plays and, as Jeanette tells us, offers us forgiveness in a way unprecedented for Shakespeare, with three generations of women appearing on stage together at the end, alive.
‘In the atom smasher of the writer’s mind, autobiography and imagination collide’. The hour is full of quotes like this – clarity and enthusiasm trip off her tongue in a session format full of theatre, choreography and texture.
At the centre of A Winter’s Tale is an abandoned child – and for Jeanette this central figure of a castaway lingered in the back of her mind, ready for reworking into a story of her own abandonment and subsequent self-discovery. But, ‘a story has to work,’ so the fun of recontextualisation starts with making King Leontes a Banker (giving him ‘the power to devastate lives’), Bohemia becomes New Orleans, and the structure is inverted so that the discovery of the abandoned baby begins the story.
‘Remember that in Shakespeare’s time, London was a new city and half of the population were under 20’. The theatre was a place to pack the most into a precarious lifespan, it was for everyone and it was entertainment as much as it was an expression for the ‘dreaming part – the unsaid things that are inside’.
Jeanette then sets out to entertain us with a reading from the novel with sound effect, dramatic pause and a musical interlude. It’s a dark and stormy night, there’s guns, cars, grief and a baby is discovered. The two most striking images for me were a description of forgiveness ‘like a tiger –we know that it exists but it’s only rarely seen up close and wild’ and ‘Grief is living with someone who is no longer there’.
My only criticism of the session is that I wanted more discussion and analysis from Jeanette – the reading revealed her relationship with theatre and with the offering up of storytelling as an act between actor and audience. At the conclusion, the applause was fervent and generous. But question time offered up more of the real gold – note the answers are more or less what she said, but not exact quotes!
Question: How did you have the courage to re-write Shakespeare, and how did you do it?
Shakespeare was an entrepreneur who loved language. Finding the language to fit the meaning and the feeling is what it’s about – that’s the job and the fun of being a writer. ‘It’s a lie detector test’ – the act of finding the language challenges you – you’re being forced to tell the truth. Shakespeare’s big vocabulary is a clue – it’s an expansion of thought, unlike the ‘karate chop syntax of the daily news’ or the fatuous feeling of a soap opera, Shakespeare was constantly working to express the complexity of daily life. You need language to deal with the huge volcano inside yourself – you need it to be free. Shakespeare is like going back to place of invitation – it’s a gift and you should accept it.
The time is ticking, too fast. Next question: Does the book contain the revelation of where Perdita is from?
‘You mean you want a spoiler?!’ Did your mother never finish stories, are you in a panic? Don’t worry, I understand – my mother used to read me Jane Eyre and in her version, Jane Eyre ran off and got married and did missionary work. . . But yes, the book ties it all up and only veers of slightly at the end. ‘That’s why we have end pages in a book – the blank pages is where the story goes.’
Two minutes to go … next Question: The baby is talked of as a blessing but do you need to have regret to have forgiveness?
Babies are always a blessing. The next generation shapes the future and if only we can continue the species long enough we might one day get it right. The Tempest came after the The Winter’s Tale and finally Shakespeare produced a father deserving of his daughter – Prospero allows his daughter to go forward.
Argh. Time is so up. Final question: How do you feel about hearing the different voices reading your book in the audio version?
I love it – it comes to life as a collaboration and a community. Shakespeare worked in collaborative world – with actors and audiences there was always room for revision and invention. That’s what the pleasure is – the voices and the power of the language. And even when we come across a production that isn’t very good and we need to leave at half time – the text is always there. There’s no need for regret or disappointment because there will always be another production coming along – the best thing to do is immerse yourself in it. Literature is the thing that doesn’t fracture under intense pressure. When you’re broken you lose your words, your ability to express the feeling and the thinking. Going to the theatre, reading, is like taking ‘homeopathic dilutions’ of language that affect you later – it is inside you and that is all we have in the end.
Time is utterly up. ‘But I want to leave you with this. Language and Love.’
Standing ovation. Nobody wants to leave. ‘You’re very kind but you have to leave’, she says. OK Jeanette, anything you say, but come back soon please!
Reviewed by Claire Mabey
The Gap of Time, published by Hogarth, ISBN 9781781090305
Oranges are not the Only Fruit, published by Vintage, ISBN 9780099598183
Many Many More…