A WINTER’S TALE: Adaptation and Equality

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We at Common Ground are going into the final stages of rehearsing our adaptation of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, and that means asking ourselves – once again – what we mean by adaptation. There’s a rich tradition of adapting Shakespeare. Theatre-makers have, in fact, always adapted Shakespeare to their societies, their aesthetic preoccupations, their most urgent questions. This has tended to get a bit of a bad press for quite a while now, under the banner of respect for/fidelity to the text, but in fact all productions are somehow cut and spliced from alternative textual versions and possibilities. They just don’t always tell us so. Often silent changes are made for the sake of clarity, for instance. And we have made some on that basis, but mainly we’ve gone for more noisy changes – removing quite a lot, but also repeating and riffing on particular phrases. One of the reasons we’ve done that is to try to find a theatrical equivalent of the wonderful experience of immersion in the language that we have all had in reading the play – repeating phrases to ourselves, going back over sections, jumping around in the play to make connections…

We’ve also added words entirely of our own, and the main reasons we have chosen to do so relate to our thinking about equalities of different kinds. First: gender. The Winter’s Tale is a play which enacts (as feminist critics have shown us many times) the paranoid imagination of patriarchy, its crucial dependence upon – and obsessive efforts to control and to pathologise – the intimate spaces of female bodies and of women’s lives (for instance, Polixenes – ostensibly the story’s nice guy – imagines the ‘rural latches’ of his son’s beloved). But, being an early modern play, of course, it looks at these ideas predominantly from a male perspective and – in spite of the best efforts of Paulina (one of the theatre’s great speakers of truth to power) – by putting the men centre stage.

We couldn’t be doing with this, so we set about changing it. Our adaptation features two men and two women, all onstage throughout, sharing all of the roles. This involved making Shakespeare’s Old Shepherd a Shepherdess, so the abandoned Perdita is taken from one mother to another. An observation I remembered by Suzie Templeton about the wolf in her tremendous animatedPeter and the Wolf encouraged us to make the bear female too, so that Antigonus (the father who bizarrely offers to neuter his daughters if his master’s wife ‘proves false’) is punished for obediently abandoning the baby Perdita by one mother while the child is gathered up by another. We also stop the play with the reuniting of this daughter with her birth mother – cutting Shakespeare’s hurried tying-up of loose ends thereafter.

But what about other kinds of equality? It’s also a play which is invested in the notion of natural nobility – characters wonder how the orphaned Perdita could have been bred in a cottage, and the play tells us it’s ok, she wasn’t: she’s a princess really. You know the drill. We have a bit of a go at this idea, I hope, and we have got rid of the scene in which productions traditionally have a jolly good laugh at the recently ennobled rural working types and their put-on manners. It’s like listening to stage northern accents on the radio – so we switched it off.  But then we had another problem: by cutting scenes like this we were tilting the pay more towards the upper classes. We dealt with this by handing the whole play over to Autolycus. We’re touring mainly to rural community venues, just like Shakespeare’s ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ does, so why not treat the play as one of those trifles he snapped up and think about what he’d do with it? We’ve changed him into a band of four, plying their trade to audiences they find on the road, and we see the play through their eyes as it might be performed at a sheep-shearing feast liek the one in Act 4.

That sheep-shearing feast is important. A Yorkshire farmer called Henry Best tells us (see here, at about 13.50) that sheep-shearing was one of those jobs which brought a whole estate together – a moment of intensely-felt community. Those workers could not have imagined how rare such moments would be in 2014, but they are the stuff of theatre and of the venues (arts centres, village halls and pubs) to which we’ll be taking it. The fleeces of sheep were also once a huge cash-crop, and so it is pleasing coincidence that the show will open in a tithe barn in Poppleton near York. This beautiful building was once kept full to maintain inequality, but now it is kept empty as a resource for the surrounding community. Community depends upon some kind of equality, however limited (before God or the local Squire, under the law…), and upon a shared space. It depends upon some common ground, and that’s why we’re adapting this wonderful, magical, frightening, sometimes offensive but always fascinating play: to create some common ground with it and with you.

Tom Cornford