Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: A review
For inventiveness and creative thinking, Margaret Atwood has few peers in the world of modern literature, or, for that matter, in historical literature. One perhaps springs to mind: William Shakespeare.
How appropriate then that Atwood should have been chosen to participate in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern writers rewriting and adapting the Bard's stories for the modern world. Hers is the fourth book in that series.
For her part in the project, Atwood chose what must be one of the more difficult plays to set in modern times, The Tempest. But then, again, it's utterly appropriate that she should give herself such a challenge. She is most definitely up to the task.
I was completely blown away (Forgive my little "tempest" joke!) by Atwood's adaptation. It is an intrepid, no-holds-barred interpretation and it manages to give full recognition to the writer's stated desire for literature to be able to reach everyone, as well as remaining true to the original author's vision. It was a tour de force!
About that idea of literature being able to reach everyone, this story takes place in a prison, the Fletcher Correctional Institute in Ontario, seemingly a most unlikely place for the presentation of a play by Shakespeare. And how did we come to be here?
We meet our hero, Felix, when he is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiwig Theatre Festival where his imaginative productions of Shakespeare plays have amazed theater-goers for years. His latest plan is to stage The Tempest as it has never been staged before. It will be his crowning achievement.
But over the years, Felix has made many enemies, including his assistant, the ruthless Tony whose aim is to push Felix out and take over the position himself. In short, he succeeds. Felix is tossed aside and his luminous Tempest never sees the light of day.
This is the third major tragedy of Felix's life. Earlier he had lost his wife and then his adored three-year-old daughter, Miranda. Now he retreats to a shack in the backwoods where he lives in isolation and where his thirst for vengeance against those who have wronged him grows and matures year by year.
His opportunity to enter the world again comes in a most unexpected fashion when he is offered the position of instructor in the "literacy through literature" project at Fletcher. He will be teaching inmates Shakespeare.
His course proves surprisingly popular with the inmates. They stage a play each year with inmates as actors and doing all the technical work, including capturing the action on video to be shown to all the inmates of the institute. The bloodier the play the happier the inmates are in staging it. Macbeth and Richard III are particularly popular.
But, finally, in the ninth year of his work at the correctional facility, Felix decides to produce that Tempest that he had planned so long ago. At first the inmates are not enthusiastic about a play with fairies in it, but as they get further into it, Felix explains that it is a play about prisons, about being locked away and the inmates accept that concept and begin to really throw themselves into their parts.
Then, the unbelievable happens. Felix's nemeses from long ago are now in the government and they will be coming to the prison to observe the inmates' work. Their aim in coming is really to have an excuse to close the literacy through literature project down, but Felix recognizes it as an opportunity to have his long-delayed revenge upon them. How he accomplishes this with the complicity of his inmate student actors is a delicious denouement.
Did I mention that part of the play within a play is the inmates' own interpretation of Shakespeare and that much of that is done in rap? A hip hop Shakespeare - who would have thunk it? Well, Margaret Atwood would and did. Wonderful!
In the end, both Shakespeare's play and Atwood's novel are about forgiveness and about letting go, and it is in this poignant strand of her interpretation of the tale of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, Antonio and all the others that Atwood gives the four-hundred-year-old play a new and rich life. And we readers are the richer for it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars