Adapt or die

In the battle of the Birdsongs, telly nicks it - just.

Adapt or die, goes the old saying. But in the case of Birdsong maybe it's adapt and die. I've now sat through versions made for the stage (Comedy Theatre) and made for TV (BBC One). In my head this was a Day of Judgement, a Sky Sports Super Sunday. Which one of the two great loves of my life (theatre and telly) would fare the best, or die the least? Showtime!

The adaptation in question is that of Sebastian Faulks's 1993 novel Birdsong. Trevor Nunn had a crack at it a full year ago; I had to wait untill this weekend to get Abi Morgan's BBC comeback. Okay, so it was a really long day.

The book tracks Edwardian Stephen Wraysford's doomed love affair with Isabelle, an unhappily married Frenchwoman in Amiens, before it pitches our damaged, dislocated hero into the horror of the Somme. It's the time-honoured pairing of Eros and Thanatos: sex and death. The carnal turns to carnage, and roiling sex scenes give way to the equally intimate spilling of blood and organs on the battlefield.The novel striates highly personal testament with the sheer statistical might of the First World War. It's a tough brief for both stage and small screen.

Trevor Nunn plied the route of a clunking and rushed literalism. If the book mentions a rose trellis, it's duly cranked into place. If the gendarmerie swarm across the pages, alors the Keystone Kops sont arrivés on stage. The epic sweep is swept, tidily, into Stephen's mouth. Poor Ben Barnes as Stephen must curate history for us, as well as get on with being broken and detached.

TV director Philip Martin nabs a few of theatre's tricks for his scenography. It progresses by synecdoche: the battlefields are lightly suggested. We're shown a detail and we extrapolate the rest, like a wallpaper repeat (my only gripe would be that Ypres looked like the sun-baked Med). Amiens is not much more than a trick of the light (Mr Nunn please take note). Where both adaptations fail, however, is in Faulks's monstrous tunnels under the trenches. No visuals can possibly match a reader's imagination; they shrink and fix into what Joyce snappily called "the ineluctable modality of the visible" (pay attention at the back, Trevor).

Then, ooh la la, there's all that sex. As the lovely Kurt Vonnegut says: "The most popular story you can ever tell is about a good-looking couple having a really swell time copulating outside wedlock, and having to quit for one reason or another while doing it is still a novelty."

In Faulks's version of the most popular story, Isabelle is a soft pat of inert womanhood who needs a Lawrentian reboot. She's a Sleeping Beauty to be, literally, pricked into life. Theatre took the embarrassed vicar approach and ignored the entire messy business. After this Trevor Nunnery, it was good to see the BBC at least have a go at scenes of consensual sex. There was something about the lovely imperfection of Clémence Poésy that somehow made Isabelle less of a cypher: that shocking ink-spattering of dark freckles; that guarded look in her eyes which kept her - despite all the bonking - actually impenetrable.

TV's final, imperious slap to stage is the close-up. The camera can gorge on tiny details, like the erotic brush of two ankles. Against this the theatre seems operatic, mannered. Televisual Birdsong was really all about the close-up on the lead actor's face. In Eddie Redmayne we have a translucent, lambent Stephen. A jolie-laide, as the French say of their women, with a great grouper fish mouth, he is more reactor than actor. His face clouds and clears like the weather. He is enormously watchable.

Bravo to Abi Morgan for her confident chequerboard restructuring (love; war; love). But despite having more time and more resources than the theatre, this show also suffered from abbreviation sickness. When you take the events of Stephen's life at a rolling gallop, you are left with a blur of melodrama. Characters flatten to clichés (the plucky Tommy, lions led by donkeys) and lines turn over-weighty, "There is nothing more, sir, than to love and be loved!" Viewers are also treated as birdbrains by the music, which helpfully semaphores sad bit, sexy bit, with all the subtlety of Children in Need.

On this particular Super Sunday it's a one-nil victory to telly, but the match was a bit scrappy, to be honest, the lads done all right but at the end of the day could have gone either way.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide