Oh, this is good, good, good! In all the hooha about the Booker Prize and the follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale (which I HATED, so I have no intention of reading The Testaments), this one seems to have been somewhat overlooked, but Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors , and The Tempest is my all-time favourite Shakespeare play, so what’s not to like!
Basically, Hag-Seed is The Tempest for modern times. It tells the story of Felix, who was once Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, directing productions that ‘amazed and confounded’. He is acclaimed by many, but has his critics – his The Winter’s Tale provoked boos when Hermione returned to life as a vampire. He is staging a Tempest ‘like no other’ when his assistant, Tony, engineers his dismissal, and the play is cancelled. Felix, already shocked by the recent death of his adored daughter Miranda (who was just three years old), goes to pieces. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, his reputation in tatters, he hides himself away in an isolated shack and changes his name.
There he gradually brings Miranda back to life:
“It began when he was counting 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. That sort of thing. Wistful daydreaming at first. But it was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real.“
From there it’s only another short step for her to become a real presence in his life, though no-one else can see or or hear her. Eventually Felix gets a job as a part-time teacher in the Literacy Through Literature high school level programme at nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Surprisingly, not only does he enjoy his new role, but he is a huge success.
“In its own modest way, it was cutting edge; it was also, you could say – and Felix did say it to his students, explaining the term carefully – avant-garde. It was cool. After the first season, guys lined up for it. Astonishingly, their reading and writing scores went up, on average, by fifteen percent. How was the enigmatic Mr. Duke getting these results? Heads were shaken in wonder.“
He stages Shakespeare plays with the prisoners and his methods are unorthodox to say the least. To ensure his students read the text thoroughly he gets them to make lists of all the swear words they find in the text, and rewards them with smuggled cigarettes for using those words (rather than modern oaths) during his lessons.
Inmates rewrite parts of the plays, to make them more understandable, but cannot alter plots. They discuss the dramas, bringing their own experience to bear on their interpretation of characters and plot, considering the way characters view each other – and what might happen to them after the end of the play (Felix wisely assigns these opinions as writing). Their views may not always be conventional, but the men make valid points, and they may make you look at Shakespeare (especially The Tempest) in a new light. And the productions aren’t just about actors.
“He’s got costume designers, he’s got video editors, he’s got lighting and special-effects men, he’s got tip-top disguise artists. He does sometimes wonder how the crafts he’s teaching might come in handy in, for instance, a bank robbery or a kidnapping, but he backgrounds such unworthy thoughts when they appear.”
Obviously, presenting a play on stage, in a prison, would pose problems, so each scene is videoed and edited (officially this counts as acquiring marketable skills), then whole thing is shown to other prisoners and staff. Atwood tells us: “Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else – Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”
After 12 years lost in the wilderness Felix learns that his old enemy Tony, now a government minister, is to visit the prison: with the help of the prisoners, he concocts a devious revenge involving an inter-active production of The Tempest – what else could he possible choose for his moment of triumph? I won’t reveal details of his plot, but it is essentially a play within a play, and therefore very Shakespearian.
Felix himself is Prospero – a not entirely benevolent figure, but I’ve never thought of Prospero as being particularly kindly. And, in case you’re wondering, although prisoners have taken female roles in previous productions, he gets permission for his original Miranda to take on the role. Strangely, the presence of his own Miranda seems to get stronger as rehearsals get under way.
Hag-Seed, part of a re-worked Shakespeare series published by Hogarth Press, is every bit as magical as the play, full of illusion and allusion. It may be about grief and revenge, but the idea of imprisonment, whether through physical barriers or self-imposed restraints, also runs through book and play, andultimately it’s also about transformation and acceptance, about letting go of the past, accepting the present, and looking to the future.