Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson
The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker. The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.
She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it. She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage. Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death. Clearly, a new direction for the bard. Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular. “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”
Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips. It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery. There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).
You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow
What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.
I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all. But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.
Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation. She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.
Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze. She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances. She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past. She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.
Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded. She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire. She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page. She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.
She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago. It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard. As the angel fell, he folded in his wings. He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die. This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche. She finally managed to get it into this book.
She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself. But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently. She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer. “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now. Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”
I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV. This latest encounter has only made me admire her more. We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.
Next up – Kate Atkinson