On the rare occasion, a book sends you reeling, completely potent with possibility and a narrative that transcends the ordinary. I’ve been a fan (nigh-on Misery-level) of Margaret Atwood after reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Since then, many of her books have become all-time favourites, including the incredible Maddadam trilogy. In both of those works, Atwood mastered uniquely personal stories in the wake of hugely dysfunctional background events: a misogynistic totalitarian government, and a world ravaged by a biological plague. Hag-Seed is a tale of magic and retribution on an entirely divergent scale – set in the microcosmic world of the theatre, within the constraints of a correctional facility.
Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Hag-Seed tackles a play I am usually ambivalent about: The Tempest. The trend of contemporary-author-rewriting-a-classic has done the rounds, yet here Atwood not only conquers the text, she adds layers of interpretation that allow a better appreciation of the original. The title is from a reference to the Tempest character Caliban, misshapen freak and offspring of a witch. Many of the inmates in Hag-Seed relate to the (arguable) anti-hero.
Hag-Seed tells the story of Felix, our modern Prospero, who is cast out in humiliating fashion from his role as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival in Canada. After years in backwater anonymity, stewing with dreams of vengeance, Felix fortuitously arranges to stage a production of The Tempest as part of a literacy program he coordinates at Fletcher Correctional, a local prison. For the inmate-cast, the choice is a confronting one; it’s not at all like the murderous Shakespearean epics Felix directed them in previously. The levels of Atwood’s retelling, the layers of similarities between the original Tempest and Hag-Seed are too numerous to list, and it would spoil the surprising puzzle invented by the author to describe them. Atwood is marvellously intelligent, but without the self-indulgence that would lessen the effect of the whole premise.
Atwood writes Felix with delicious mischief, regularly undermining the puffed-up high esteem he holds of his talents. In the past, his audiences were known to have grumbled in disenchantment:
“Why did Pericles have to be staged with spaceships and extra-terrestrials… why present the moon goddess Artemis with the head of a praying-mantis?”
Felix is the arrogant director/king of his domain (rather as a Duke of Milan might be – and he gives himself the pseudonym Mr. Duke when incognito at the prison). He is acutely conscious of his parallels with Prospero, and Atwood knows we are too, so details are meted out in gradual doses, like letting out a fishing line. Within the spectacle of the revenge fantasy of the exiled director, Atwood doles out a helping of poignancy in the form of Felix’s ethereal daughter Miranda. Her demise at a young age is a tender wound. Despite his insistence that he is not ‘mad’, her visage comforts him in the gloom of isolation. He begins to count time “by how old Miranda would be, had she lived. She’d be five, then six; she’d be losing her baby teeth; she’d be learning to write… Wistful daydreaming at first.”
The inmates create interesting interplays for the appreciation of the original text. In the classroom they are only permitted to use ‘Shakespearian’ curses, rather than conventional profanities. On another level, this form of didactic control is a way for Felix/Prospero to shape them as his underlings, and later his own personal goblins. The inmates struggle at first with the character of Ariel, who turns from a fairy to an earth-bound E.T. awaiting his mother ship – much more acceptable in the prison hierarchy. I was also particularly taken with the bootlegger Red Coyote, an inmate who disdains the curses “earth” and “turtle” and debates Felix on Prospero’s treatment of Caliban (in post-colonial readings of the play, Caliban is emblematic): Prospero “‘Shouldn’t have been there in the first place… [while he could have kept Caliban penned up]… Says it himself, he wants the work out of him.’”
Readers’ expectations are also challenged with the choice of Anne-Marie Greenland as the Miranda in Felix’s production. Anne-Marie is the young actress first slated for the original tempest, and she enters the prison world with a likeable self-awareness. She settles “on a den-mother act, aiming to inspire filial devotion rather than lust among her fellow cast members” and, frankly, kicks butt. When the cast discusses the after-lives of the Tempest characters, Anne-Marie baulks at suggestion her Miranda would be raped and murdered and cast into the sea. Her narrative is one of magic and martial arts:
‘She’s a strong girl. She hasn’t been tied up in corsets and stuffed into glass slippers’
Atwood’s ability to counteract darkness with irony and humour makes Hag-Seed a classic in its own right.