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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?)

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