Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, the inaugural volume of what Hogarth Press is calling, borrowing the language of recording studios, “cover versions” of Shakespeare’s plays, is a retelling of the late romance The Winter’s Tale, first performed at the Globe and then before King James I at court in 1611. The Winter’s Tale is, famously, a play that begins as tragedy, and transforms itself at the very end of its third act, with the intervention of Time itself, into another play altogether, neither tragedy nor comedy, but a miraculous fusion of both, of meeting simultaneously with “things dying” and “things newborn.” The structure of the play corresponds organically with the plot, resolved through the finding of a lost daughter.
The final act is nothing so simple as a reversal of the previous action; it is as if the fourth act is the child of the previous play, both echoing and changing what has happened before. Franz Schubert, in his manuscript “My Dream,” a kind of embryonic vision of his song cycle Die Winterreise, uncannily describes the effect of this earlier winter’s tale: “Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”
In the first part of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes, the king of Sicily, after a festive nine-month visit of his beloved boyhood friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is overcome by the conviction that his friend’s and his queen Hermione’s affection for each other, which he himself has encouraged, is evidence that they are lovers, that the child she is carrying is Polixenes’s bastard, and that they are plotting together to overthrow him. He orders a trusted councillor to murder Polixenes, separates Hermione from Mamillius, their son and heir, and imprisons her, awaiting a judgment of her innocence from Apollo’s oracle. Hermione gives birth prematurely to a daughter, whom Leontes orders exposed on the wild shores of Bohemia, against the impassioned advice of Paulina, another trusted courtier.
Although the oracle declares the queen’s unequivocal innocence and warns that the lost daughter must be found to preserve the kingdom, Leontes overrules it. Before the trial can proceed, a messenger announces the death of Mamillius, broken by his father’s incomprehensible and sudden violence toward his mother. Hermione herself falls dead on hearing the news.
In the second part of the play, Polixenes’s son, Florizel, the Bohemian prince, has met and fallen in love with the Sicilian princess, Perdita, brought up as a shepherd’s child, with no knowledge of her heritage. When Polixenes discovers the romance, he becomes the implacable tyrant in his turn, threatening to kill Perdita and disinherit Florizel.
The couple flee to Sicily, where Leontes has spent the last sixteen years in formal penitence. There, Perdita’s true identity is revealed at last, and Paulina invites the reunited families to see a remarkable statue of the late queen. It is of course the living queen, who has been sheltered under Paulina’s protection, surviving to see her daughter restored to her and the oracle fulfilled.
Jeanette Winterson has anchored her retelling in the twenty-first century, with a decor of iPads, pink Fiats, therapy, and hedge funds. Winterson charms with her playful translation of the cast from the courts of Sicily and Bohemia into our own quotidian life. King Leontes is Leo, an “Alpha Male” capitalist billionaire CEO of a hedge fund called Sicilia, while the original’s courtier, Paulina, is now Pauline, an MBA manager of the fund and Leo’s right hand in the business. Hermione, Sicily’s queen, has become MiMi, a celebrity chanteuse, the daughter of a Russian diplomat, brought up in Paris. She is delightfully introduced to us through a wonderfully convincing facsimile Wikipedia page, underscoring how much this biographical format has become a part of the mental structure of the age.
Polixenes, the suspected lover of Hermione in the play, is now Xeno, Leo’s boyhood friend, a gay designer of computer games. The suspicious Leo has a webcam set up in his wife’s bedroom; a few images serve to confirm his already fabricated conviction of the infidelity of his wife and friend, and as in the play, inflame his fantasy that both the expected baby and Milo, the couple’s older son, are bastards. He tries unsuccessfully to kill Xeno, viciously rapes the pregnant MiMi, and pays for his infant daughter Perdita to be abducted, intending to have her delivered to her imagined father. The scheme goes awry when Leo’s agent is killed and Perdita is rescued by a black father and son who run a bayou country music club and restaurant called the Fleece, in an imaginary Louisiana town called New Bohemia—these are of course the Shepherds, the doubles of the original Bohemian shepherd father and son. Autolycus, a peddler and pickpocket in the original and perhaps the most successful crossover of all, is a shady used car dealer, selling his dubious wares from a shop called “Autos Like Us.”
The action of Winterson’s novel shadows the plot of Shakespeare’s play; every chapter’s title is drawn from his lines, and occasionally fragments of the verse are quoted. When the mapping of one world onto another works seamlessly, the effect can be breathtaking, as in the scene when the Shepherds change the flat tire of the car that had carried the abducted baby. The moment is written with a magical stillness and assurance, the ancient image of the turning wheel of fortune delicately superimposed onto the familiar task of changing a tire. But despite the rewards of images like this, in attempting to find close equivalents that double the play’s characters and settings in the present, Winterson has chosen an almost impossible narrative strategy out of the many alternatives available.
Because the characters have to hew so closely to their prototypes (even their names are for the most part shortened versions of the Shakespearean personae), they function less as characters than as symbols of their originals. The twenty-first-century Perdita and Florizel are generic, self-consciously adorable young lovers, asking each other inane questions: “Do you like stars?” “Do you like the ocean?” Paulina, now Pauline, is a dated stand-up comedy routine Jew, a sort of formulaic Yiddish-speaking Mama Shylock, with never a moral uncertainty about her heart of gold. The play’s characters are nuanced because we witness them making suspenseful moral choices; the novel’s characters are enacting their fates, already set in the pattern of the ancestral play.
The ultra-modern setting emphasizes any lack of continuity or plausibility. It’s a puzzle, since MiMi has notified the police of the baby’s kidnapping, why both Leo and Xeno wouldn’t have been thoroughly questioned, and bulletins and pictures with the baby’s name posted on the Internet. Why wouldn’t Leo have suffered any legal consequences? There is no mystery about the child’s name in this version, so it jars that Polixenes’s double, Xeno, doesn’t recognize her distinctive name when the young woman introduces herself to him as Perdita. Pauline has been described as a woman who’s lived for her career, with no time for relationships, yet she is suddenly addressed as “Mrs. Levy” near the book’s close, though we have never glimpsed a husband. And it seems bizarre that the choice of music in a black-owned Louisiana bayou country bar would include James Taylor and Bette Midler but not a trace of zydeco. Implausibly, Perdita’s brother Milo, for whose death her father is responsible, is never mentioned during the course of the reunion.
Paradoxically, the characters don’t gain in reality by being set in the present; nor can they escape the imprisoning rhetoric of pop psychology with which they describe one another, with its repertoire of commitment phobias, control freaks, disconnects, “ways of doing family,” and Alpha Males. These characters cannot move freely within language; neither fluent in the past, nor inventive in their present idiom, they lose the mystery and dazzling fluidity that is unique to The Winter’s Tale, which is not set in the past or the present or the future, but in the heart of time itself.
Winterson might fruitfully have found a more improvisational relation to the play—by having Time tell the story, for instance—or by narrating the tale herself. It is striking that the closing pages of the book are the most captivating, when she does precisely that, describing in her own voice her passion for the play and its deep autobiographical meaning for her. To tell the tale, as she does, as a kind of parallel text translation from the original means that the reader can never escape constant comparison of the two, so that we are always in an impoverished relation to the masterpiece itself, and we end up reading in a state of insomnia rather than entering the dream.
Kenneth Branagh and his codirector Rob Ashford, by contrast, in using all the resources of The Winter’s Tale’s native medium of theater, were able to make full use of the oceanic presence of time in the play, time that is only in one aspect sequential or cyclical. In this London production, which closed in January and was streamed in some British theaters, seasons were emotional as well as natural; the dead could be living, the living could be dead, an adult could be born, the past and the present could coexist in a missing child, who could bring her parents to life.
Branagh and the company, of course, accomplished this partly through the advantage of the verse, language deliberately composed, with its fluid syntax and rhythmic emphases, to move fluently and unconventionally through time and space. And the actors (with Branagh playing Leontes) had the advantage of theater’s particular relationship to time; physically present actors are engaged in a complex transaction between the immediate moment and memory. They are, in a sense, living what they remember—the parts they had memorized. There was a consciousness, too, both in the audience and, subtly, within the performances, of the revolutions of time embodied in the players—Judi Dench, now Paulina, had played both Perdita and Hermione in previous productions.
From the outset, Branagh’s production played wittily with anachronism. Though Leontes’s court was a vaguely Scandinavian, late-nineteenth-century household at Christmastime, the play opened with home movies of the two kings’ idyllic shared boyhood, a technology that seemed too advanced for the period. Even if this was an Edwardian court, it would be a stretch to have footage of these mature kings’ childhood years. But Time is sovereign in The Winter’s Tale, and it is Time’s prerogative to anticipate, to move backward, forward, or to pause altogether. Time was a pervasive presence in this production, not only as represented by Judi Dench in Act IV, but in technology, in the body, seen in Hermione’s pregnant “goodly bulk,” in an old friendship or new love, or an instant of violence that couldn’t be retracted, with “power/to o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour/to plant and o’erwhelm custom.”
Time’s power was visible in the Christmas presents these grown-up kings gave each other—skates and a snow globe—toys belonging to the two boys they still wanted to be. The skates would quickly add evidence to Leontes’s foregone certainty of his wife’s treachery, when he caught a glimpse of her skating with his friend, in the natural embrace of paired skaters. Branagh’s Leontes was himself an anachronism—a man who had not matured. He spent so much time on the floor with his son Mamillius it was as if he wanted to change places. And in his interactions with Miranda Raison’s Hermione, he was a bit awkward and physically ill at ease, like a teenager trying to overcome the fear that he is not his girlfriend’s equal. This was reinforced by his flash of resentful fury that Hermione has persuaded his closest friend to prolong his visit, when “at my request he would not.”
Raison played her effortlessly graceful Hermione, delicately and maddeningly, as his superior—better born, as the daughter of the emperor of Russia, a more practiced and successful diplomat, the generosity of her hospitality spontaneous and truly felt. (This quality as a hostess was wonderfully evoked in the fourth act sheep-shearing, with Jessie Buckley’s Perdita, true daughter of her mother, brimming over with joy in her feast, and uncontainable, loving, abundant concern for her guests.) Branagh’s frustrated, outraged “Shall I be heard?” after Hermione speaks in the trial scene, while the attention of the court is riveted on her, suggested that this was the latest of many occasions when the queen overshadowed the king, even in her disgrace.
This Leontes’s jealousy was more complex than that implied by the usual focus on sexual jealousy alone. Branagh’s jealousy metastasized, though the serpentine ambiguity of the dialogue between his wife and friend—as when Hermione says, “Th’ offences we have made you do we’ll answer,/If you first sinned with us, and that with us/you did continue fault”—leaves room for a response of either doubt or trust. Branagh showed us, though, how quickly Leontes begins to will what he imagines. He is jealous not only of what Polixenes and Hermione may have done, but also of what she is. He wants to recreate her—as his moral inferior, no longer his wife, but his prisoner. He is jealous of his own son’s childhood, and takes it from him.
The ambiguities of the play are at work not only in the perception of falsehood, but of truth, which is equally difficult to see clearly. Hermione’s assertion “A lady’s ‘verily’’s/as potent as a lord’s,” embedded in her playfully charming speech persuading Polixenes to stay longer, might sound like courtly gallantry, but is the plain truth, a truth embodied by Paulina, and Perdita, too. There is a dark ironic comedy flickering in the tragic acts of The Winter’s Tale, in which women are accused of being by nature “slippery,” deceitful, incapable by nature of honesty, whereas it is overwhelmingly the men—Leontes, Polixenes, the master thief Autolycus, who are lying and faithless. (John Dagleish played a wonderful Autolycus, so adept in his trickery that he at last managed the supreme feat of deceiving himself.)
And what happens when a woman tries to tell the truth? When the gods confirm that Hermione has been truthful, her husband insists that the gods themselves are liars. When Paulina speaks the truth to the king, he calls her a witch and threatens to have her burned at the stake, though here every woman accused of falsehood and witchcraft—Hermione, Paulina, and Perdita—is in collaboration with divine forces. This might have been a risky ambiguity to set before King James I, who along with his patronage of Bible translation was also the author of Daimonologie, a treatise on the nature of witches, with guidance on how to recognize them. James was deeply preoccupied by witchcraft, and was personally involved in the witch trial of a midwife named Agnes Sampson, who confessed under torture and was executed.
Along with Leontes, the female characters most intimate with him—Raison’s Hermione and Judi Dench’s superb Paulina—were freshly conceived in a way that added new dimensions to the play. Centuries of actresses playing these characters have been subject to a kind of prescriptive criticism that describes the sort of ideal women they ought to be. Here is an example from the New York Albion’s account of Amelia Warner’s 1851 Hermione, in a production directed by William Burton, the publishing partner with Edgar Allan Poe of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Warner is praised for her “exhibition of physical weakness and moral power, of injured innocence and gentlest submission to the hard decrees of fate” in the trial scene.
By contrast, there was nothing submissive in Miranda Raison’s trial scene. We could at last see that Hermione is a cousin to Portia, a great and observant lawyer, artfully revealing to the court the mechanisms of the show trial this is. Though telling the truth puts her utterly at risk, she lucidly defends not just her personal innocence but, accused of conspiracy, her political integrity and her honor as a human being in addition to her conduct as a wife. She is a study of vulnerability and power, corresponding to her husband’s amalgam of power and weakness. (The Albion critic makes Burton’s Autolycus, though, sound shockingly contemporary—“the very prototype of hedge financiers, the Barnum of the highways…. O, Wall Street, behold thy King.”)
The character of Paulina is often nervously measured: How much is she a scold, a termagant, a witch, a crone, though this is how Leontes characterizes her when his mind is at its most diseased? Judi Dench’s Paulina was responding to a matter of life and death; she neither enjoyed nor loathed her obligation; she was tireless in telling the truth. Her Paulina might have been modeled on Ida B. Wells or Florence Nightingale—not the sentimental lady with the lamp, but the indefatigable campaigner, the writer of five hundred letters setting out the medical and social arguments for sanitary boards in every Indian province. Like Nightingale described by her friend Colonel Yule, Dench’s Paulina “is worse than a Royal Commission to answer, and in the most gracious, charming manner possible, immediately finds out all I don’t know.”
This Winter’s Tale was marked by a flow of revelatory, swiftly passing, virtuosic moments; Dench and Branagh in act 3, when Paulina insists on showing the king his newborn daughter, suggested the history of the pair’s past relationship as well as their present antagonism. When Dench insisted her way into an audience with him, holding the baby, Branagh’s wry recognition that no one could have stopped her (“I knew she would”) and Dench’s testing attempt to restore the king’s sense of humor, assuring him that the baby resembles him so much “’tis the worse,” captured a flash of affection and respect between old friends who have wrangled over policy before and momentarily remember coming to less tragic resolutions. Michael Pennington’s Antigonus was another exquisite sketch, of a man not weak in relation to his wife, as he is accused, but in relation to his king.* Another small marvel was Branagh’s first appearance in act 4, when, with his back to the audience, he managed to communicate through his posture alone years of endurance, pain, solitude, and a dignity Leontes never achieved in his previous scenes.
The sparkling charm of the opening Christmas scene, the joyfully carnal Bohemian pastoral scene, and Patrick Doyle’s engaging accompanying songs should not distract from how these performances, along with the fresh complexity of Branagh’s Leontes, Dench’s Paulina, and Raison’s Hermione, made this version a landmark production of the play in all its inseparable darkness and radiance. We can only hope that a record of it will be available and that it can be revived.