THE WINTER’S TALE or HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLAY

winters-tale-branagh

Judi Dench as Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

In my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN (published on 26th January) one of my characters, Terry, is an actor taking on the role of King Leontes in  THE WINTER’S TALE. Back in the day I had an idea I might like to write a play. I made the mistaken assumption that because I liked writing dialogue in my novels, plays would come easily to me. By the end of the course I felt like someone who walks past a BT engineer when he’s in the middle of fiddling about in one of those dark green wire-filled boxes. You stop and look and think how can he know what he is doing? Writing plays, I had discovered, was much more complicated and technical than I had ever imagined.

However, here are some things that my teacher would undoubtedly have advised against:

  • do not get rid of a character by having him eaten by a wild animal. Exit pursued by a bear? No,no, no – it’s not on;
  • check your geography. If a country is landlocked (Bohemia) do not give it a coastline;
  • don’t just have someone come on stage at the beginning of the second act and say 16 years have passed. It’s clunky;
  • do bother to sketch in a bit of back plot if you decide to hurl your character into a jealous, paranoid, fury that destroys his family and his kingdom;
  • you can’t tell the audience a character has died and then bring her back to life with the words,    ‘It is required you do awake your faith!’. Suppose they haven’t got any?
  • don’t write a speech like this because it will traumatize the actor who has to try and make sense of it and no one in the audience will understand it:

“Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre.

Thou doest make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dream (how can this be?),

With what unread thou co-active art,

And fellow’st nothing. Then ’tis credent … “

And on and on … into greater and greater obscurity.

THE WINTER’S TALE (Act 1.Scene 2.137)

  • do not write one act as if you are a Scorpio and the second act as if you are a Virgo; try for a bit of consistency. Take it from me a mash up of Othello and As You Like It will not work.

All the above are things that Shakespeare does in THE WINTER’S TALE. The plot of which goes something like this. *SPOILER ALERT*. King Leontes the King of Sicilia starts behaving like Tony Soprano without the therapist. He accuses his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, of having an affair with his pregnant wife, Hermione. He puts Hermione on trial which leads to her death, the death of their son and the banishment of his infant daughter, Perdita. Too late it becomes clear he has made a terrible mistake and he and his kingdom are plunged into an endless winter of sorrow and grief. Jump 16 years. Perdita has been raised by a shepherds in Bohemia. She returns to Sicilia and is reunited with her father. Leontes is invited by Paulina to visit a statue of his late wife. When he touches the statue it is warm and it is clear she is not a statue but very much alive. He is reconciled with her and his kingdom returns to prosperity.

The first time I read the play I closed it with these profound words of literary criticism, ‘It’s bonkers and I’ve no idea how you’d act it.’ Then I went to see it and I thought aren’t actors mysterious, magical beings. I heard that speech spoken in a way that I felt the actor understood it even if I didn’t. I still thought it was nuts, and for the most part I found the second act pretty tedious (too many nymphs and shepherds). As soon as women start waving herbs about in Shakespeare it’s either too twee or a death is in the offing and I tend to switch off. But I could also see that it was powerfully nuts.

Then I went to see it again and it really got under my skin. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • It is a really odd play.
  • It is also a very powerful play.
  • It has one of the most tender of lines in it, ‘Oh, she’s warm,’ and one of the most savage, ‘Burn it,’ in reference to the infant Perdita.
  • It has one of the best roles for women in Shakespeare, in the character of Paulina. A woman who will not stop telling Leontes how wrong he is, a woman who is not afraid to speak truth to power. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a role and as you can see from the photo above it attracts some powerful actors.
  • Don’t go and see it if you’ve recently been bereaved; it will break your heart.

In TITIAN’S BOATMAN my character Terry, while struggling with the role of King Leontes, suffers a nervous crisis. Now come on! Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit intrigued by that scenario. Have you seen the play? Or have you read Jeanette Winterson’s novel ,The Gap of Time, a modern day version of it. What did you make of them?

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17 thoughts on “THE WINTER’S TALE or HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLAY

  1. I did ‘A Winter’s Tale’ for ‘O’ Level ( remember those?). A couple of years later, I watched an all-girl version put on by our ‘sister’ (I should coco) school, Aldershot County High Scool For Gels, with my then girlfriend in the role of Leontes, very good and a little confusing at my tender age. I just accepted everything without question as something I had to learn to pass an exam. Perhaps I was more like a Shakespearian theatre-goer than I knew – uncritical, readily taken in by magic and easily distracted by a pretty girl (?) Your observations make me really want to see the current production, seriously consider giving up on the play I stopped writing, temporarily, two years ago and most definitely read ‘Titian’s Boatman’. Thanks very much, Victoria!

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    • Thanks Phil! What a weird play to do for O’level but how fascinating to see your girlfriend as Leontes. Please don’t give up on the play because of any old rubbish I’m spouting here. The photo actually relates to a production that is over. It had Kenneth Branagh as Leontes. It was excellent and not surprisingly quite filmic in quality. Thanks very much for the kind comment on TB and looking forward to seeing you on 25th.

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  2. I love that – Tony Soprano without the therapist!

    I always remember you saying you like writing dialogue. I think dialogue would be the main reason why I could never write a novel. Not much chance of that then …

    Isn’t it fascinating how different art forms are.

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    • The poor actor who plays Leontes has to go pretty much into full psycho mode from the get go hence the Soprano reference! The course left me with a great admiration for playwrights and a brain that felt like a pile of spaghetti!

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  3. I’m very intrigued by that scenario. But also about Shakespeare’s play and writing plays.
    I found ot that the opposite is just as true. Even if you are able to write great dialogues in a play, you might not write great fictional dialogue.
    I like that photo of Judi Dench. It’s been a while since I’ve last seen a Shakespeare performance.

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    • Hi Caroline that’s interesting about the other way round. I think one of the main things that I struggled with was that people in a play carry much more symbolic weight than in novels and it’s also trickier to get inside their heads in the way that you can with interior monologue in novels. I suppose there’s always the soliloquy. You also have to physically move them about – very tricky! Judi Dench was great in that production. Kenneth Branagh was Leontes and he made a pretty good stab at that speech.

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  4. I’ve just finished reading Alan Bennett’s latest collection, which includes a TV play. Someone once suggested I write a TV treatment of a book I’d written and having looked at Bennett’s, I think I’d go mad with all those directions and the actual lack of dialogue…Must have been fun writing about a Shakespearean actor, though. Can’t wait for TB!

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  5. While I have written stage plays, the constraints of budget, stage, schedule, actors and directors were up front and useful. But my first plays were for radio, where you can do anything — dangerously free for poet-playwrights. I hope Titian’s Boatman will be available on Kindle soon: looks great.

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    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes, maybe you’re right. After all there’s nothing the matter with bonkers. I enjoyed the Gap of Time but found it dragged in the same place the play does i.e. the second act! I’d be interested to know what you make of it.

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  6. I’m woefully poorly read when it comes to Shakespeare and I’ve never seen the play enacted, but it does sound very intriguing. I’m a Jeanette Winterson fan but haven’t read this one yet, so I’ve ordered it – I’ll start there first!

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