Article published on November 7, 2015.
I’ve often heard singers, musicians and dancers being described as having commanded the stage. They are, after all, performers, it is what you would expect, nay what is required. But it’s not typically used to describe authors, nor have I experienced it in this context. Yet that is exactly how I would describe Saturday’s event with Jeanette Winterson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. She commanded the stage for all of her hour-long session and held the audience in the palm of her hand as she delivered a one-woman multimedia event, replete with an atmospheric reading from The Gap of Time – her latest novel and the first in Hogarth’s highly anticipated Shakespeare retelling series. There was also a lively question and answer session that I’m sure would have long continued had the room not needed to be vacated for the next speaker.
Winterson opened her set – for that is what it was – with a montage of videos from Shakespearean performances and quotations on the bard, before taking to the stage and setting the scene in 1611 – the year of The Winter’s Tale – the text that Winterson has reimagined for the project. We were then treated to a generous reading from The Gap of Time – although performance is perhaps a more fitting description as Winterson embodied her text and accented it with auditory effects.
It was in fact very much like a Shakespearean performance. The extract itself gave a tantalizing glimpse into Winterson’s text and what she’s done with it, and although I was planning on reading it anyway – indeed I have a copy here waiting to be read – her performance only increased my interest. Although, I must say, I think having heard Winterson deliver it so impassionedly and with such nuance, perhaps I’ve been spoilt and a simple reading of it will now feel too flat in comparison.
Yet, I think Winterson’s voice and performance will stay with me as I read. Both texts clearly mean a lot to her, as she explained that she’s always had an affinity with The Winter’s Tale which features a foundling, an abandoned baby, which resonates with Winterson’s own personal history and drew her to place this foundling – Perdita – at the centre of her own retelling. Adoption, she described, is like coming to a book with the first few pages missing or the theatre after curtain up; you’re always looking for something to guide you backwards that will allow you to move forward. And that is what literature is about Winterson concluded, finding a way forward.
There’s also a line in forgiveness and second chances in both texts that spoke to her, as it seems to have done for Shakespeare towards the latter stages of his career. Nor did Winterson seem particularly daunted by the project of rewriting Shakespeare, who she described as a ‘pirate and pioneer’, arguing that you simply have to go in, smash the text up and find the core. Ultimately, she found it easy to update the bard, letting us in on some of the humorous shifts in the character’s names and professions, including that of Autolycus, Shakespeare’s con artist figure, who she reshaped as a dodgy car salesman whose shop is called Autos Like Us.
Winterson also had the audience laughing along at her attitude to her own writing, claiming she has a wood-burning stove in her office which she feeds with her manuscripts throughout the winter. She is not one for archiving past works or drafts – arguing that’s it’s either printable or not. Saying she doesn’t have the sort of magic drawer that will make her work better with time, it’s not like wine or cheese that matures with age…‘if it’s lousy, it’s lousy.’
Winterson too let us in on her writing process, which involves her standing up to type on an old-fashioned typewriter speaking her words out loud. An oral tradition seems to be at the heart of her connection with, and love for, language and that was very much in evidence not only in what she said of her own approach to writing but also in her performance on stage – an assured, mesmeric delivery that belongs very much to the tradition of oral storytelling. If you get a chance to see her live, then I encourage you to do so, and if not, she’s certainly convinced me to pick up The Gap of Time at the earliest opportunity.
The Gap of Time is published by Hogarth in hbk 1 Oct. 2015
FROM THE ARCHIVE: Big Interview nb69: Jeanette Winterson LITERARY EVANGELIST