Actors over athletes

Beneath the Cultural Olympiad, the Criterion theatre will show the funny side of the Olympics in two new plays.

The build-up to the sport explosion that looms over London is heightening, but the Olympics bring more than just inspiration to exercise in logo-coated vests. Since 2008 London has borne witness to the “Cultural Olympiad”, which triangulates various expressions of culture in the form of theatre productions, festivals and workshops. The Olympiad boasts more than 8 300 past workshops with a total attendance of 169 000 people, and over 16 million people have seen an offical London 2012 cultural performance. But, slightly outside the official team's monopoly on cultural events, London holds a number of theatrical sparks beneath the Olympic radar.

Coinciding with the Olympic dates, the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus will be holding a programme titled Playing the Games. The series of events is technically part of the Olympiad in the London 2012 Festival, but being London's only independent West End theatre and with a humble capacity of 588, it falls slightly under the array of official events. Playing the Games holds an opportunity to see both up-and-coming and well-established talents in the form of comedians, musicians, playwrights and Olympians. With the aim to bring together sport and culture, encompassing the attempts of the London 2012 Olympics itself, the programme holds two new Olympic-related plays. Taking Part by Adam Brace strings together all the relevant spirits of self-belief and opportunism, and not excluding the timely Olympic tradition of things going wrong. The story follows a Congolese security guard training as an Olympic swimmer to compete in the London Games. His Russian coach doesn't have much hope for him, but unlike the audience watching real underdogs competing in the real Games, the audience will support his determination and optimism to the end. Alternatively, for the less sporty types, the Criterion will also be showing Serge Cartwright's After the Party. This follows Sean and Ray, two 30-ish-year-old former DJs trying to shove their feet back in the heavy doors of the music industry. With the world flocking around their Statford homes for London 2012 they have their last chance at a musical career, and the audience has yet another opportunity for Olympic merriment.

If your cultural aim this summer is to avoid the Olympic theme altogether, Playing the Games will also hold performances aimed at the less athletic audience, or at those poor Londoners afflicted with Olympic-bitterness. The renowned and skilled arts group, Paper Cinema, will be showing for one day only a version of Homer's the Oddysey using hand-drawn paper puppets. In what the Times has called “ingeniously effective”, Paper Cinema will use their skilled puppet masters and riveting live musicians to bring cardboard cut-outs to life. For a more informal theatrical experience, the Criterion is also holding a number of lunchtime interviews by such comedy personalities as Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, and sporting inspirations as Edwin Moses and Haile Gebrselassie.

The Criterion will not be the only theatre to bring drama to the Olympics. At Headlong, Citizens Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, a new opportunity to see the classic Euripides tragedy Medea will come to light. Mike Bartlett has audaciously written a modern version in association with the Warwick Arts Centre that makes the ancient drama even more horrifying in contemporary context. Or, on the lighter side, you could see a play about a man in labour. Birthday by Joe Penhall at the Royal Court Theatre tells a more comic story about a world with artificial wombs and truly equal partnership in childbirth. Arriving into the world kicking and screaming, Birthday will be showing throughout the summer and shows the wide variety of entertainment available to London in place of sweaty Olympic crowds.

Obi Abili plays an amateur Congolese Olympic swimmer in a new production at the Criterion theatre. Photograph: Bill Knight
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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