The recent trends for well-known authors to retread the material of other well-known authors have been a pretty mixed bag. I enjoyed Val McDermid’s high-spirited take on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey but then was bored to tears by Joanna Trollope’s plod through Sense and Sensibility. Trying out Anne Tyler’s ambitious attempt to update The Taming of the Shrew, I finished impressed as ever by Tyler as a writer but not convinced by the book itself Vinegar Girl. However, the news that Margaret Atwood was tackling The Tempest in Hag-seed left me with a far greater feeling of trepidation – not only is Atwood one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but she is also one of my personal favourite authors. The idea of an even lukewarm book by Margaret Atwood would be far more disappointing than a flat-out dull book by an author I cared less about.
Added to that, the book’s premise raises queries; Felix is the maverick artistic director ousted from leadership of a Canadian theatre festival by his devious deputy just before he was about to launch his most ambitious piece, a version of The Tempest. Cast out to the cultural wilderness, Felix plots his terrible revenge and so when it comes, Hag-seed becomes a play within a play within a book, reaching what could be terminal levels of meta-fiction at the hands of a less gifted author. Staging his vision of The Tempest goes beyond a simple desire for artistic expression for Felix – it is an expression of his grief for his deceased small daughter Miranda and although it takes him twelve years, he is determined to have his revenge, and a creative one at that.
Gaining a job in a correctional facility teaching literature, Felix encourages his inmate pupils to put on productions of Shakespeare plays to enhance their understanding of the text. After a few successful years, he hears that some high-ups in government are planning to visit, having heard of his recent success. Wouldn’t you know it, one of these high-ups is none other than Felix’s nemesis Tony, his former deputy who used the betrayal as a springboard to bigger and better things. Determined to make this count, Felix plans out his revenge, persuading the inmates that this year the play that they want is The Tempest and what is more, they want to do it according to Felix’s original vision.
I saw a production of Tempest years ago while at university, it was an odd production during which the actor playing Caliban wore a rather distracting balloon between his legs – just in case the audience was unable to tell what was motivating him. The description, within the opening pages, of Felix’s intended original production did not appear as hyperbolic therefore as it might otherwise have done, with him intending to have an ‘Ariel, […] 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.’ Flashing forward a dozen years, Felix has to adapt certain aspects of the play to suit his new cast (the ‘where the bee suck, there suck I’ speech turns out to be none too popular for a group of inmates who have reputations to uphold) but he is able to get Anne-Marie, the actress he originally wanted to play Miranda, to come in and take up the part – an added incentive for the inmates who are suddenly very motivated to try out for the part of Ferdinand.
Atwood adds some truly fabulous touches to how she describes rehearsals; the cast are forbidden from using foul language and instead must comb through the play to compile a list of insults used by Shakespeare, with these being the profanities of choice during rehearsals. It is from this list that the play’s title comes, ‘Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up‘. Of all the retellings so far, Hag-seed is the first which seemed to truly engage with its source material. The inmates are put off The Tempest as they think it is about fairies but via Felix, Atwood explains that there is a great deal more going on.
Despite being familiar with the story, I actually found myself understanding the play on an entirely new level. The many ways of interpreting Ariel, the racial issues around the character of Caliban, the feminist issues around Miranda – this is far more than a simple retread of the plot points, Atwood is exploring the whole mythology around Shakespeare itself. She addresses what makes people fear and avoid Shakespeare’s work and what it is that people respond to in the first place, with everyone from the inmates to Felix to the audience members chipping in with their thoughts on the play. There is no obligation to be a fan of The Tempest or even of Shakespeare himself to enjoy Hag-seed, but for me being both did add something to the experience. The scene where the prisoners present their essays analysing the imagined lives of the play’s central characters after the finale was particularly effective, particularly when Anne-Marie comes to her character’s defence.
There are some fantastic instances of doubling with Hag-seed, with the character Miranda representing both the original play heroine, then the spirit of Felix’s lost daughter who he still imagines trailing in his wake all these years later but then also Anne-Marie, who takes on a surrogate-daughter relationship with Felix. The inmates have their own back-story but are then linked with the characters they portray onstage. And the students observe that Antonio in the play, and Tony in ‘real life’ have only prospered due to the inattention of Felix/Prospero, the one waxing in strength as the other waned. As a cast of incarcerated prisoners, Felix’s students are quick to spot that Prospero is a despot, to sympathise with Caliban, who is indeed the character who most of them want to play.
There is so much about The Tempest which is weird, from the ambiguous ending to the frustrating central character of Prospero to the qualms of the modern day audience around possible colonial or misogynistic interpretations – it’s an odd play. Yet, rather than attempting to contort these peculiarities and squash them into the novel template, Atwood has embraced them head-on. Hag-seed still traces the original play’s action very closely but it has an energy and life of its own. We watch as Felix gathers together the props, rehearses his actors and prepares for curtain up and we feel the crescendo rising – what comes next is simultaneously ridiculous and fantastical and wonderful. More than most of Atwood’s fiction, Hag-seed was actually a really fun read. Few writers could novelise literary analysis and make it compelling, but Atwood has managed not only that but also a well-earned place on the Baileys prize shortlist. Irreverent, and gazing up at the story from an entirely new angle, Hag-seed is a novel both rich and strange.
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Published by Random House on October 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Drama, Shakespeare, General
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