Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

hag-seedI usually ignore reinterpretations and retellings of classic novels but the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was so enticing I set aside my normal cynicism. It’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative from Vintage which has so far seen 6 titles including Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice with Shylock Is My Name and Edward St Aubyn tackling King Lear in Dunbar.

Atwood brings us a version of The Tempest in which her Prospero is Felix, a jaded theatre director who ends up leading a prison drama programme when he falls victim to the machinations of his protegé.

For years Felix has been the artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival, delivering ever more fantastical and ambitious productions as each year passes. All his attention is  focused on “the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use.”

His commitment to directorial excellence is such that it leaves him no time to smooch with the festival board members and calm their nervousness at his ever wilder productions (His version of Pericles involves extraterrestrials while his Macbeth requires chain saws). He’s more than delighted he can leave all that humdrum kind of stuff  to a very helpful, super-efficient factotum called Tony.

Big mistake.

Tony manoeuvres behind the scene to step into the director’s shoes and soon Felix is out on his ear mid way through rehearsals for what would have been his greatest ever creation: a version of The Tempest.

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Cast out from his kingdom Felix takes himself off to a shack in the wilderness to lick his wounds and plot his revenge. His years pass in solitude with Felix living off his savings and retirement package. Obsessed with revenge, he watches Tony’s star rise, enabling him to become Minister for Heritage. When he decides he’s taken solitude too far he gets a job, using a fake identity, as an acting tutor in the Literacy Through Literature  run at Fletcher Correctional, staging one of Shakespeare’s plays every year using the inmates as actors.

It takes 12 years before the opportunity comes to get his own back on Tony.

Felix chooses The Tempest as the next production for the inmates and embarks on his standard rehearsal process. The first task for aspiring cast members is to comb the text for ‘curse words’ they will use as replacements for the regular oaths which are banned during rehearsals.  “Hag-seed” and “Scurvy monster” are deemed OK.

Then they have to delve deep into the characters’ minds before Felix will decide who gets which part. All his students want to play the monstrous Caliban, “We get him,” they say. “Everyone kicks him around but he don’t let it break him.” But none of them are willing to play Ariel— until Felix persuades them they are seeing the character completel wrong. Ariel is not a ‘fairy’ but a cool alien, a non-human being with superpowers who controls the special effects. At which point everyone decides he wants to be Ariel.

Felix is a hard taskmaster. He insists on complete dedication from his cast as he takes them through a detailed analysis of the play, its themes and its characters before they begin rehearsal.

There are some new developments this time: he brings in an outsider in the form of the actress he intended to play Miranda in his original version. And instead of the usual audience of prison officials, prisoners and guards, he invites some high-ups in the government to watch the recorded performance (for security reasons no live performances are allowed) in a bid to extra financial support for the programme. It just so happens that one of these officials is Tony in his role as Heritage Minister  As he prepares for the visit Felix proves himself just as much an expert in manipulation and subterfuge as his arch-enemy, conjuring his actors to bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery.

Felix was the undoubted star of the novel for me.  He’s completely bonkers and often rather unpleasant yet Atwood made me warm to him and cheer him on in his revenge quest.

This is a man who is suffering.  Like Prospero, he has lost his wife. But at least Prospero had his young daughter Miranda to keep him company in exile. Felix however lost his Miranda when she was three years old and his struggles to deal with this loss lie at the heart of Atwood’s novel. It drives Felix’s obssesiveness and fuels his creativity.  “Didn’t the best art have desperation at its core?” he reflects.   By the time the novel finishes just as Prospero frees Ariel, so Felix knows he must free Miranda whose ghostly presence sustained him for years.

It’s a poignant moment in a novel that is written with verve and mischief. Atwood seems to take great delight in caricaturing the liberals found in certain sections of the arts but she also reflects contemporary trends by using rap for one of the more boring parts of  the Tempest script.  Out of necessity (I couldn’t take my library edition on my travels) I had to switch to an audio version of Hag-seed  but it proved to be a smart move. I doubt any rap artist would rate Atwood’s attempts very highly since some of the rhymes are, shall we say, a little obvious, but they do work better in audio than on the page.

Hag-seed is a novel that is touching and hilarious with a brilliantly imaginative climax. It works well as a story in its own right but as a reworking of the play it will delight people who are familiar with the original and will enjoy spotting the parallels and connections with Shakespeare’s version.

Atwood picks up well on the themes of imprisonment and power from the original play. This is a play about prisons, Felix tells his aspiring cast members, and he has them scrutinise the text line by line to determine just how many forms of prison they can identify. The parallel with their own lives is obvious but it also speaks to Felix’s own situation – he too has lived in a form of prison for years and has acted, like Prospero as a form of dictator. The difference is that of course he can walk out a free man at the end of the play, while his cast are left to serve out their time.  He is however a changed man.

Hag-Seed is an inventive tale that was a delightful experience in itself but also had me scurrying back to the original to remind myself of its excellence. Now if only Atwood could be  commissioned to write all the Hogarth Shakespeare versions I’d likely buy the entire set. (I doubt the bosses at Hogarth read this blog but maybe someone more influential can have a word in their ear?)

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 9, 2017, in Book Reviews, Canadian authors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. Would you believe I bought this to read over the summer and I still haven’t read it? There must be something seriously wrong with me! Now I am just hoping I have it read BEFORE the next summer comes around!

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  2. I’m glad this series is doing so well. The Jane Austen Project of contemporary authors fell off after her four mainstream movie re-adaptable novels were done.

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  3. This is a retelling I am interested in because someone else reviewed it, but I didn’t mark down who! Naomi, perhaps? I want to see how the prison setting crashes with creativity. There is tons of creativity in prison, but most of it appears directed toward shenanigans or spoken-word poetry.

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  4. Nope, I’m not one for retellings either, but I did really enjoy her retelling of the Odyssey in The Penelopiad. Loved her sly, dark humour in the approach. I also rather liked, with some uncertainties, David Malouf’s retelling of part of the Iliad in Ransom. So, I approach these sorts of books with trepidation, but in the hands of top writers they can be excellent – even if your knowledge of the original is basic I think.

    (I wish though that fewer people would try retelling Jane Austen – but I’d read Atwood if she tried it!!)

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    • I agree about the Austen retellings – though most of them are easy to read, and I rather enjoyed Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’ when it appeared a couple of years ago.

      Anything by Atwood is worth trying, and I look forward to reading this one. I saw the stage version of ‘The Penelopiad’ in Stratford 10 years ago with an all-female cast. Utterly spell-binding.

      As far as the Hogarth Shakespeare series is concerned, I have mixed experience. I’ve read two so far: Jacobson’s book which I couldn’t get on with (but then, I have had no success with Jacobson’s other work either), and ‘The Gap of Time’ (Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of ‘The Winter’s Tale’) which I found enjoyable, if a little contrived.

      I think I will give ‘Hag-Seed’ a go. Thanks for this thoughtful review.

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  5. Totally agree—this is by far the best of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and a great novel in its own right.

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  6. You make this sound rather compelling. It was on my radar for a while but then I forgot all about it. That’s why I’m glad you reviewed it.

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    • It happens like that doesn’t it, you hear about a book for months and months and make a mental note to read it yourself. Then something else comes along and pushes the idea out of your head

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  7. Thanks for this review. This Atwood book was nowhere on my radar but will definitely investigate it further. She always sparks such varied reviews for her work. The Tempest is one of my favourites so I look forward to exploring this one.

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  8. I don’t like overt retellings either but Atwood is my caveat. I loved her retelling of the Odyssey in The Penelopiad and I’d probably like this too.

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  9. This just sounds so brilliant. I must try and get around to reading it soon. Last month I read two Margaret Atwood books, loved them both so definitely in the mood for more. I’ve had The Hag-seed on my shelf for a couple of months.

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  10. Like you I’d make an exception for *anything* Atwood wrote. Really must read this!

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  11. I checked this book out from my local library before I got sick and had surgery and still haven’t gotten to it. It’s good to know that you enjoyed it. It gives me hope because I’m not a fan of retellings either. I kind of figured I would need to go back and read the Tempest to make sure I had the context of the retelling right.

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    • Re-reading the Tempest would help you make connections though if you have even a basic knowledge of the plot that would be sufficient. But it’s not necessary in order to enjoy Atwood’s novel

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  12. I think there have been just 6 Hogarth Shakespeare books so far, with 2 more in the pipeline. This one was my favourite for sure, followed by Anne Tyler’s and Tracy Chevalier’s. Winterson’s and St Aubyn’s were okay, and I couldn’t make it through Jacobson’s.

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    • Hm I dont know where I got the idea there were more but when I checked the website I see you are right – Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth is due out next year and Tracy Chevalier’s Hamlet is due 2021

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      • I can’t decide if I’m interested in those two. I’ve never read any Scandi noir so I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to something by Jo Nesbo, and though I enjoyed Gone Girl I’m not sure I’d read anything else by Gillian Flynn. It’s interesting that they’ve given these two tragedies to thriller writers.

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  13. Am I happy to find another blogger who liked this book? You bet. I felt quite alone in my admiration. It seemed like many readers just didn’t “get” what she was doing. I suppose that has been true for Atwood through her career. I am so happy she keeps going. I have read many of the Hogarth Shakespeare series but I need to catch up on the rest. I enjoyed all the ones I read.

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  14. I heard Atwood talk about this onstage at Stratford prior to the Simon Russell Beale production last year but it still didn’t warm me to the concept. I’m afraid I like my plays as plays and my novels as novels. The impetus behind the genres is so very different. I get particularly annoyed when novels are dramatised for the stage. There are so many young playwrights with original ideas looking for an opportunity but this season at Stratford we have both a dramatisation of A Christmas Carol and another of all three of Robert Harris’ Cicero novels. I’m glad you enjoyed it and glad that she doesn’t make the Prospero figure out to be a martyred saint. You see that too often in the theatre but if you look at the political climate at the time the lay was written it is clear that that shouldn’t be the case. James I would have seriously disapproved of everything about Prospero.

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    • I’m not keen on stage versions of novels either (Jane Eyre on stage just wouldn’t have the ability to convey the interiority you find in the novel). I thought Atwood cleverly negotiated the genre challenge though.

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