On the day of the first new moon of June 1599, at 3 o’clock, the new Globe theatre opened its doors with a new show – Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.
Everything was new – it was the spirit of the times. London had quadrupled its population in 80 years; this mass migration itself was new. Young men, in particular, staked themselves for adventure, money and chance.
London, an old city, inhabited for more than 1,500 years, was suddenly a youthful city again. Half of its population was under 20. And life expectancy – rich or poor, whether in Shoreditch or Mayfair, barely got beyond 45.
So there was intensity of life in the city. A teeming energy made out the twin forces of youthful recklessness and brevity of life. In such a context, the theatre is a kind of alchemy that turns less into more. Here, time is not subject to the usual constraints. Here, time, and other worlds, are yours for the taking.
The Elizabethans loved the idea of the “world-stage”. Queen Elizabeth herself declared that “we princes are set, as it were, upon a stage, in sight and view of the world”.
The new Globe stage was in sight and view of 3,300 people. To put that in context, London’s Royal Opera House today seats 2,200. The RSC main theatre at Stratford seats just over 1,000. Elizabethan theatre was big, noisy and democratic.
In the open-air theatres such as the Globe, plays had no intervals. Later, when roofed theatres were introduced, Shakespeare recut some of his earlier work to fit the new fashion for intervals. And he began writing with intervals in mind. The Winter’s Tale, first performed at the Globe in 1611, divides neatly around one interval, or two – take your pick – even though the theatre space didn’t require it. An interval – really the world’s first advertising break – meant that Shakespeare could pace his plays differently. For him, everything was an opportunity.
So when I was thinking about my prose version of The Winter’s Tale, I decided to keep the device of the interval, levering the reader out of the action for a short time. I wasn’t interested in copying Shakespeare – this isn’t a retelling. I wanted to track Shakespeare in the same way that he tracked other people’s ideas, innovations, solutions, follies, even failures, and used them to his advantage.
The Winter’s Tale itself is a remix of Robert Greene’s lurid and dull storyPandosto. Greene hated Shakespeare and spent years attacking him in print, mainly for being a) uneducated and b) ripping off other people’s work. It was Greene who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”.
Shakespeare never responded directly, but after Greene dropped dead, Pandosto was stripped of its body parts and given life as a tense drama of sexual jealousy and the betrayal of every loyalty: of friendship, marriage, kinship, service and – because this is Shakespeare – a deeper note of disloyalty to life itself. Leontes plays God. Shakespeare doesn’t like that in a man.
To write a cover version of a Shakespeare play is to stay true to the spirit of Shakespeare. As a dramatist he was less concerned with a fixed text that we are. He was a collaborator, an actor-playwright in a company dependent on patrons and box office sales. He knew how to riff on an idea.
I have called my version The Gap of Time because this phrase occurs twice in the play, and because this is a play where every motive is hidden somewhere, but just out of reach, dropped in the gaps. Shakespeare doesn’t give us anybody’s backstory – all we know is that Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, grew up together. Polixenes is visiting his old friend Leontes, and after nine months, is persuaded to stay longer by Leontes’s wife, Hermione – and she’s pregnant.
These separated facts are enough to piece together a murderous puzzle in Leontes’s head. Like Othello, Leontes does not believe – or believe in – his wife. But in The Winter’s Tale there is no goading Iago. No external forces. Only delusion. The Winter’s Tale is Othello post-Freud, even though Freud is 300 years in the future.
The gap of time – what is it? It is more than the 16 years of the queen’s supposed death after her humiliation by Leontes, and more than their new-born child’s other life elsewhere. It is a ticking clock reminding us how quickly harm can be done. And how long it takes to repair it.
After the interval, Time, holding an hourglass, appears on stage to warn us that 16 years has passed in the 20 minutes we’ve been having a beer and queuing for the loo. It’s like Rip Van Winkle, or those heroes who get caught up with fairies and don’t know that 100 years have gone by.
I used this device in my memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. That book has a non-linear timeline that misses out 25 years in a chapter called “Intermission”. What’s the point of time if you can’t mess with it?
But it wasn’t time, or miracles, that drew me to this play, though I like a story that isn’t afraid of either. It was something closer, as it always is with stories we love, loving something that speaks to us through our own silence. The Winter’s Talehas an abandoned baby as its shining centre. As an adopted child, reading to get a reading of myself, foundlings were signs, symbols, symmetries and clues. Often the child left to chance becomes the key to what happens next – but in non-linear time, “next” can signify backwards as well as forwards. We imagine that the future depends on the past. In The Winter’s Tale the past depends on the future. Time’s arrow shoots both ways until that which is lost is found.
My version of the story is set in the present. I didn’t want Leontes to be King of Sicilia, but he had to be an alpha male who does what he wants and is reckless with the lives of others. So I made him a banker called Leo who runs Sicilia, a hedge fund. His wife, Mimi, is a singer, as a nod to the fact that the play is full of songs. Polixenes becomes Xeno, a gay man who is a video-games designer living in New Bohemia, a fictional city in America. As boys, the two were sent to boarding school together by their divorcing families. This at least gives us a sense of their shared damage and shared experience.
And being Shakespeare there’s always a joker – in his case Autolycus, a pedlar and a rogue, in my case the dodgy dealer who runs a garage called Autos Like Us.
I inverted the structure of the play so that the opening chapter blasts us straight into a car-jack and murder one stormy night in New Bohemia. And suddenly there’s an abandoned baby left in a hospital Babyhatch. Shakespeare has Perdita, “the little lost one” raised by a Shepherd and his son the Clown. For me, Shep and Clo are a couple of late-night guys who instinctively do the right thing at the right time.
Shakespeare’s recognition of time as a player is central to so much of his work. There’s a time to get things right – or disastrously wrong. Leontes – because he doesn’t understand that he doesn’t own time – learns the hard way. Shakespeare’s late plays are about second chances and forgiveness. As I get older both things matter to me more. I’m an optimist but time is short. Getting things wrong is easier than getting things right, and I’m aware of how much we need the generosity and patience of others. In The Winter’s Tale, it’s the women – Hermione, Perdita and Paulina – who put the thing to rights. They are an interesting manifestation of the Great Goddess in her triple form as mother, daughter and wise woman. The female principle saves the play from the usual consequences of male rage.
And at last, in Shakespeare, the women stop dying in the fall-out of the hero’s soul. Hermione, Perdita and Paulina are alive at the end of the play. That’s progress.
If there are only four possible endings to any story – comedy, tragedy, revenge and forgiveness – then Shakespeare leaves us where we want to be, as the motionless statue of Hermione steps down to rejoin the flow of time, and to let the past be over.
I altered the ending because I wanted the last word to be Perdita’s. If the future exists, the new generation will have to discover it, like a territory not subject to the violent destructiveness of the past.
It has been strange, in the middle of so much global horror, to work with this play. Shakespeare, it seems, had had it with any “Great Man” theory of history. The heroes and villains are done. Instead, almost shyly, the women are on stage and the baby – nearly destroyed but saved – has returned. Another chance. Yes. And then?