image23.04.2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and there will be a plethora of commemorative book and events to partake of. I’ve been warming up during 2015 by attending as many live-in-the-cinema performances as possible: RSC stagings of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and, most recently, The Winter’s Tale, live from the Garrick, performed by Kenneth Brannagh’s theatre company, with the magnificent Brannagh, himself as Leontes, and the superb Dame Judi Dench as Pauline.

Marvellous experiences, one and all, and I intend to continue this habit during 2016. I also intend to read all the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings, particularly, if they are as strong as Jeanette Winterson’s offering, The Gap of Time, a modern riff on The Winter’s Tale.

To save time, here’s a link to the No Sweat Shakespeare plot synopsis of A Winter’s Tale.   A drama full of explosive irrational emotions, which seemingly spring from nowhere in the time frame of a stage play.  Plenty of gaps for a novelist to play with and flesh out – and given that sexual jealousy lies at the heart of this, wriggle-room for Winterson to sex it up  and modernise it.  Which she does.  Just enough not to overplay it.    While I didn’t pick up on any LGBT undertones in the Leontes/Polixenes original, I’m not saying there aren’t any.  Given the content of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Winterson’s evaluation of that relationship is more likely than mine.

The structure of the novel remains true.  First section: the idyll is destroyed by destructive jealousy.  Second section: 16 years later and the next generation seem intent, albeit unknowingly, on bringing together the two families, ravaged by past events.  Third section: Genuine regret and redemption.  I have to say,  Winterson made my heart ache  and brought tears to my eyes.  Shakespeare did not.

The question is though, would this stand as a novel in its own right to a reader unacquainted with A Winter’s Tale?  Because I’d been at the cine-theatre only a couple of week’s earlier, it’s hard to say.  Much of my enjoyment derived from Winterson’s wit, for example, transposing the card sharp Autolycus into the owner of the used car dealership  AUTOS LIKE US.  On the opposing spectrum, the  tragedy of the “exit persued by a bear” stage direction is transformed into a suitably random but entirely realistic contemporary equivalent.

Winterson’s epilogue, a heartfelt mini-essay explaining the personal significance of the play is profound, illuminating, and as enjoyable as her Winter’s Tale retold.  If the rest of the series matches this, then reading pleasures in 2016 will be sublime.

 

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