- - Thursday, January 12, 2017



By Margaret Atwood

Hogarth, $25, 320 pages

What fun. A play within a play within a novel. The Hogarth Press has commissioned a series of novels retelling some of Shakespeare’s best-known plays by well-known authors. Jeannette Winterson’s “The Gap of Time” (“A Winter’s Tale”) was the first, followed by “Shylock is My Name” (“The Merchant of Venice”) by Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” (“The Taming of the Shrew”).

Now here is Margaret Atwood with her version of “The Tempest.” “Hag-Seed” is a literary delight, a novel of revenge told with wicked glee, with characters to hiss yet hold dear, creative imagination, and wild scenarios. A pleasure from start to finish.

Felix Phillips was the artistic director of the Makeshiweg theater festival in Ontario. Felix’s wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Miranda, who died at the age of three of meningitis.

Over the years, Felix had left his assistant, Tony, to “run the mundane end of the show” so he could “concern himself with higher aims. To create the lushest, the most beautiful, the most awe-inspiring, the most inventive, the most numinous theatrical experience ever.”

His productions had triumphed with the critics, although the playgoers “had grumbled from time to time,” that “the almost naked, freely bleeding Lavinia in Titus was too upsettingly graphic” or why “did Pericles have to be staged with spaceships and extraterrestrials instead of sailing ships and foreign countries, and why present the moon goddess Artemis with the head of a praying mantis? … [or] Hermione’s return to life as a vampire in The Winter’s Tale.”

Felix’s masterwork was to be a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Ariel “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 … Miranda would be … a wild thing …” Felix himself would play Prospero.

But Felix was ousted by his sly assistant, and Tony took over the festival as a steppingstone to his political ambitions. Felix, devastated, disappeared from view. He rented a run down shack in the country, fixed it up a bit, and thought about two things: he wanted to get his “Tempest” back and he wanted revenge.

His sole companion was his imaginary daughter, Miranda, with whom he talked, shared his life and listened to her advice. “Call it a conceit, a whimsey, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in his non-reality as if it were real.”

Fate came to him “in Year Nine of his exile,” in the form of an offer to teach “Literacy Through Literature” at the local Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Felix, now calling himself Mr. F. Duke, took the January to March job and decided to put on Shakespeare plays with the prisoners. He discussed the plays with the class, studied the characters, cast the actors, and prohibited his players from using swear words other than those in the plays.

The inmates were “Lost boys all of them, though they are not boys: their ages range from nineteen to forty-five. They are many hues, from white to black through yellow, red, and brown; they are many ethnicities. The crimes for which they’ve been convicted are assorted. The one thing they share, apart from their imprisoned state, is a desire to be in Felix’s acting troupe.”

Felix was back in the theater, but in a new way. “If anyone had told him then that he’d be doing Shakespeare with a pack of cons inside the slammer he’d have said they were hallucinating.”

When Felix entered the prison, the “door unlocks and he walks into the warmth, and the unique smell. Unfresh paint, faint mildew, unloved food eaten in boredom, and the smell of dejection, the shoulders slumping down, the head bowed, the body caving in upon itself … motherless years. The smell of misery, lying over everyone within like an enchantment. But for brief moments he knows he can unbind that spell.”

In Felix’s first three years at Fletcher, his class performed “Julius Caesar,” “Richard III,” and “Macbeth.” In the fourth year, he chose “The Tempest.” He cast his characters according to the inmates’ personalities. No one wanted to play Ariel and certainly not Miranda. Accordingly, he turned the former into an extraterrestrial, and for the latter he called on the actress he had chosen to play his Miranda 12 years earlier at the festival. (His imaginary Miranda, like Shakespeare’s heroine, was now 15 years old.) Everyone wanted to play Caliban, the hag-seed (witch’s offspring).

The rehearsals, the shenanigans, the costumes, and the analysis of Shakespeare’s work, whittled down in part to rhymed rap, is a literary tour de force. Learning that Tony, now Heritage Minister, would be attending the performance at the prison, Felix saw his moment of revenge. When Tony and the other dignitaries arrived for the performance, Felix and his troupe were ready for an adventure, and their guests were in for a surprise.

As it should, all’s well that ends well, and “Hag-Seed” ends very well indeed, with everyone receiving his or her just desserts.

Margaret Atwood is a master of fine writing combined with a rich imagination. Her re-creation would make Shakespeare proud, for she has managed to complement Shakespeare’s magic with magic of her own.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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