Hag-seed, Margaret Atwood, Vintage 2017
It’s hard to imagine a writer of Margaret Atwood’s stature and excess of imagination restricting herself to the confines of someone else’s creation, but this is what – in theory – Atwood has done in Hag-seed.
As one of a number of writers commissioned to produce a work based on a Shakespeare play to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death, she has selected The Tempest – one that sits squarely in the group of problem plays.
But it proves to be no straitjacket at all. Her deposed Prospero is theatre director Felix, who makes the mistake of ignoring the mundanities of workplace politics to immerse himself in his craft. Lesser men oust him when he is at his lowest ebb personally following the deaths of his wife and child, but on the eve of his greatest theatrical dramatic triumph, his production of The Tempest.
His self-incarceration in a primitive hovel some way out of town gives him the space to confront his grief, but also to nurture his revenge. It is slow in coming – twelve years – but when it does it is spectacular. Felix’s rehabilitation takes the form of a job teaching literacy in a nearby prison, which he promptly turns into a job putting on Shakespeare productions with the inmates, with such startling results that he becomes a fixture. And it is there that his enemies are delivered to him, and his once-impotent plotting against them begins to spring teeth.
You don’t need to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy the book – with its satirical humour, ruefully imperfect hero, sudden stabs of pathos, and the final inexorable march towards revenge, it can stand on its own two feet – but there are delights along the way if you are. Just as Gonzalo in the original enrages the traitors with his idle musings on how he would govern his own island, Lonnie, the only person to have shown Felix a shred of pity, irritates his ruthless companions by expatiating on how he would improve correctional services.
Atwood reworks some of the speeches in the play as explosive raps developed by the enthusiastic inmates, who, responding to Felix’s subtle mix of explanation, interpretation, and recasting in modern frames of reference, have picked up the text and run with it. And the exploration of what happens to the characters after the end of the play demonstrates the vigour of a close reading of the lines alive to the social context of the play as well as its internal logic.
On a parallel track, Felix’s revenge is crafted through expert – on might say criminally expert – use of digital technology, whisking Prospero’s magic from the ‘twangling’ isle to the gritty realities of a Canadian correctional facility.
I am happy to report that it is not only Felix and the inmates who are rehabilitated in their various ways. Atwood rescues Miranda from her usual ‘wide-eyed girl in a nightie’ manifestation and transforms her into an athletic and resourceful woman, well able to defend herself, manage an irascible father and a predatory slave – and run a tight cave.
Atwood’s sly humour is a huge part of the satisfaction of reading the book, whether it’s describing the excesses that Felix’s productions have inflicted on the middle-of-the-road theatregoers of the Makeshiweg festival, capturing the ghastly corporate-speak of the upper echelons of state and national politics, or relishing the creatively macabre options the inmates offer for punishing Prospero’s traitors.
Most satisfying of all is the way Atwood presents the sheer enjoyment of ‘putting on a show’, where all differences of age, race, opportunity and education are obliterated in a joint undertaking and creativity becomes boundless. With all the subtlety of Prospero’s art Atwood has concocted a page-turner that is at once comedy of manners, ‘let’s do the show right here’ romp, accessible lit. crit., and a moving tale of redemption for (nearly) all involved.