Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood‘s novelistic retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is more than a contemporary reinterpretation.  Suitably, considering the source it battles with, it is a play within a play, a cell within a prison, with a lead wizened old man trapped in a jail of his mind of his own making.  Supplanting magic with the illusions of technology, theatre, and some casual recreational drugs; Dukedoms become Artistic Director positions, the bad guys now politicians; the sprites and spirits now compliant cons; and Prospero’s Miranda lost and found in so many places.

Felix is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, at the top of his game.  His vision extraordinary and confounding, his administrative tasks handled by his right hand man Tony.  He is planning on staging The Tempest, a production like nothing he has created before, boosting his reputation and healing emotional wounds.  That is until Tony commits an act of unforeseen treachery, and Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his lost daughter and plotting revenge.  12 years later, his chance finally arrives teaching a literacy course at a nearby prison.  Here, his madness translates, and his inmate actors will put on The Tempest like nothing experienced before, ensnaring the traitors who betrayed him.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press developed an offshoot project in 2012, asking established contemporary authors to retell Shakespeare plays.  So far six are published, with plans for more in the series through to 2021 at least, with authors including Jo Nesbø doing Macbeth and Hamlet by Gillian Flynn.

But for Felix, how do you sell The Tempest to a group of incarcerated criminals in a literacy program?  “It’s got a thunderstorm in it.  And revenge.  Definitely revenge.”  A relatable theme for all, but edging into dangerous territory with a group of medium-security prisoners perhaps.  But there are details and echoes throughout that completely delight with their originality and genuineness.  For example, each times he runs the course, Felix bans conventional swearing but tasks the inmates with writing a list of every swear word in the text, picking a top ten, and using only that for the duration, with points lost for breaking the rules.

“‘We playing for cigarettes?’  asks Ppod.  ‘As usual?’
‘Of course,’ says Felix …Heads are bent, notebooks are opened, playbooks are consulted, pencils busy themselves.
Your profanity, thinks Felix, has oft been your whoreson hag-born progenitor of literacy.  Along with your whoreson cigarettes, may the red plague be rid of them.”

This feels like an authentic learning method and creates some fantastic hilarious dialogue with odd and old fashioned terms dropped frequently by the eager inmates.

I was also surprised when we got into the real work of running the course in the prison how real Felix’s talent is.  When we are told the story of his ousting as Artistic Director, we are shown only a mad despot, with an indulged creative vision lacking in taste or restraint.  Famous for falling showers of glitter; enrobed in a coat of stuffed animal skins: details to amuse and make your toes curl and draw a certain image of Felix.  But his engagement with the inmates shows that his passion and talent is bona fide, and when they band together for Felix’s revenge, collectively they truly create a Tempest like never seen before.

Overall, is this book enjoyable?  Yes.  Does it stand on its own without the knowledge of or reference to The Tempest?  Perhaps not.   I was amused, it built up tension, the resolutions were spirited and satisfying, but the best pleasure of this book was the echoes, reinterpretations, mirroring, recalibration with the original text.  The story is decent but when you appreciate what it is coming from, and on how many levels it works, it is incredible.  Atwood’s spark is focused on the strenuous and enjoyable wrestle with Shakespeare.


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