Sunday, November 1, 2015


My first encounter with Mr. William Shakespeare was in a Grade 7 English class. We studied Romeo and Juliet, watched the modernized film version with Leonardo DiCaprio, and acted out scenes from the play. A decade later, I am delving back into Shakespeare with the role of Malvolio in a Laurier production of Twelfth Night. Our director’s vision is to be free with time and era, providing some fresh air to the play. This seems to be the trend with presenting Shakespearean plays today as well as in film, opera, and other works – reinterpreting old classics in contemporary ways.

Jeanette Winterson’s new novel The Gap of Time is indeed such a modernization. In fact, it is one of a series of retellings of Shakespeare's work by a plethora of renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood and Tracy Chevalier. The Gap Time is a "cover" of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which has little to do with the infamously cold season. For those not familiar with the 17th century play or intimidated by Shakespeare’s early modern English, Winterson helpfully provides a summary of the play at the outset of the novel. For those less faint of heart (such as myself), reading the original Shakespeare will make comparing and appreciating Winterson’s cover much easier and more interesting.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale centres on the crazed King Leontes of Sicilia, who accuses his wife Hermione of adultery along with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. Their infant daughter, once born, is banished and raised by a shepherds, only to return to her native Sicilia at the close of the play to be reunited with her family. Winterson updates the novel to the present, with many clever name changes and surprises. The antiquated Kings Leontes and Polixenes become Leo and Xeno, two childhood friends who in Winterson’s novel were at one point also lovers as teenagers. Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione is reincarnated as a famous French singer named Mimi. Their daughter retains her name of Perdita, which still refers to her exile.

Winterson’s retelling is substantially darker than the Shakespeare play. Leontes’ sexual obsession is exaggerated, the famous bear which attacks Antigonus is translated into murderous robbers, and the bucolic shepherd scenes are scrapped for an African-American family living on modest means. Winterson’s novel explores Shakespeare’s themes of Othello-esque jealousy, class, and family in further depth than a play is able. She also underpins her rendition with further themes, many of which would not have been comprehensible in Shakespeare’s time – technology, sexual identity (or lack thereof), and celebrity culture.

Winterson’s tale edges more on the perverse and sexually charged at times, which creates a new “Leo” that is perhaps more understandable to modern audiences in his sexually-charged, businessman guise than a King that seems to descend into madness by accusing his pregnant Queen of adultery. Mimi is a more talented Hermione, but she does not die, become a statue, and then magically return to living human form again. Following the original Hermione storyline would certainly not be as credible to modern audiences as realistic fiction – unless Winterson decided to write The Gap of Time as a sci-fi fantasy. Oddly enough, as musical as many of Shakespeare’s plays are, there is not much music in the original Tale. Winterson rectifies this, with Mimi’s vibrant musical career, Shep’s piano bar, the HollyMollyPolly band, and many other occasions for music-making.

The Gap of Time is a meticulously constructed and interesting re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Although in English-speaking countries Shakespeare may seem ever-present in classrooms, there is still so much to discover in his brooding and humourous work, especially remarkable given that he predated the field of psychology by so many centuries. Winterson affirms that Shakespeare is as as relevant as ever in his mastery of the art of storytelling and his probing insights into the human condition that still ring true today. From The Gap of Time, to the Met’s new, controversial production of Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Othello which has done away with blackface, to the upcoming film adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Shakespeare is very much alive and kicking, in a countless array of guises and disguises that continue to startle and amuse contemporary audiences. I look forward to recreating my own version of Shakespearean magic with my reincarnation of Malvolio in January. In the mean time, I have lines to learn!

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical vocalist. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

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