Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare 2016)
2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which led to a flurry of novels retelling his plays. Apart from the seven titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, of which Hag-Seed is one, there were at least Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (a take in Hamlet read by my Book Group on a date I couldn’t attend) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart (which includes a deft retelling of Measure for Measure, and which I read recently).
Hag-Seed relocates the story of The Tempest to contemporary Canada. Felix Phillips is sacked as Artistic Director of a Shakespeare festival in the small town of Makeshiweg. He goes into solitary exile with the ghost of his young daughter, hoping, Prospero-like, to take revenge on the men who usurped his position. His hope comes to fruition through a production of The Tempest that he directs as part of a literacy program in a men’s prison. He plays the deposed and vengeful Prospero himself.
I’m a sucker for stories that revolve around theatrical productions of classic texts. Theres’s the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows (2003–2006), and Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Two of my favourite films seen
this last year were Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), which features Uncle Vanya, and Emmanuel Courcol’s Un triomphe (2020), which features En attendant Godot, each of them illuminating its respective play as well as gaining heft from it. If the theatrical production happens in a prison or similar institution, my suckerness intensifies: Un triomphe is in that catergory; I still remember the joy of seeing Peter Brook’s movie of Marat/Sade in the late 1960s, and the different joy of a high-school production of Louis Nowra’s Cosí directed by and starring the late Jesse Cox. In real life, my first copy-editing task at The Currency Press was to mark up two short plays, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, written by prisoner Jim McNeil and staged by the Resurgents Debating Society in Parramatta gaol, a group not completely unlike Margaret Atwood’s Fletcher Correctional Players.
This may be the first novel I’ve read that both retells a classic and has the Let’s-Put-on-a-Show story-line. Mansfield Park is as close as I’ve got. (I haven’t read Thomas Keneally’s Playmaker – maybe I should.)
So it was inevitable that I’d love this book.
The story of Felix’s revenge is cheerfully improbable fun, involving hi-tech jiggery-pokery, hallucinogen-spiked grapes and a convenient confession, but the real interest of the book is in the production of The Tempest. For someone with my superficial knowledge this is a joyous introduction to the complexities of the play and its potential for interpretation.
For just one example, none of the the prisoners in Felix’s ‘class’ is going to risk playing Ariel. Caliban, fine – everyone signs up for him. But everyone knows they’ll never survive being seen as a fairy on TV by the whole prison population (the prison won’t allow the play to have a live audience). Felix does a brilliant job unpacking the nature of the role, to the extent that more than half the group now want to play Ariel as a possible alien, super-powered force of nature – it works at the level of story, but it also offers fascinating insights into the play.
The role of Miranda doesn’t allow for such persuasion. There’s nothing for it but to cast a real woman – and the presence of a young woman who is a dancer and a champion in martial arts is the source of some good clean anti-sexist fun.
In a couple of chapters towards the end, the members of the class present their ideas of what happens to their characters after the play ends. At this stage it occurred to me that this book would be an excellent teaching aid for a high school class studying The Tempest. The prisoners are doing just the kind of exercise that such a class might be assigned. And you know what? That thought didn’t dim my enjoyment one bit.