The protagonist of Hag-Seed is Felix Phillips, a theater director ousted from his role as artistic director of a cutting edge theater company modeled after the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. After his ignominious (and rigged) firing he goes into a self-imposed exile in a hovel somewhere in the Canadian countryside where he plots his revenge just as Prospero did. Eventually he manages to get hired on as the new director of Fletcher Correctional’s theater program designed to enhance the inmate’s literacy skills. Felix plans to re-mount his previously envisioned extravaganza of The Tempest which never was realized at Makeshiweg when he lost his job.
Much to my surprise Hag-Seed is not only a story of revenge but is actually something of a caper novel. Felix and the prisoners conspire together to present two separate productions of The Tempest, one which will be videotaped for the rest of the inmates and prison staff to watch and another secret production that will be engineered to bring about the downfall of the villains who were responsible for Phillip’s removal at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and essentially ruined his career as a theater director. I will say no more about how this scheme is achieved, but knowing in advance of the caper angle ought to attract the attention of crime fiction fans who enjoy genuine caper thrillers like those by Lionel White and the trademark comic capers of Donald Westlake. It’s one helluva of scheme with all parties affected receiving their just deserts.
Atwood uses all themes, motifs and characters of The Tempest with enviable skill, the most telling of course is that the play is rife with prison imagery and prisoner references. She riffs on multiple meanings of the play's story, finds analogies between the magical creatures of Prospero’s island and the criminals who are tasked with telling Shakespeare’s story. Their hip and modern update incorporates everything from digital and electronic special effects to rap music to eccentric choreography created by the hired actress playing Miranda (she's not a prisoner) who also happens to be skilled in martial arts.
One of the most innovative and amusing bits stems from Felix’s insistence that no one swear during the rehearsal process. All curse words must come from the text itself. Points are deducted from each prisoner’s final grade (it is, after all, a legitimate class in a literacy program) for each use of a 21st century swear word instead of a 16th century curse. As Felix explains: “Too much shit is monotonous and monotony is anti-Shakespeare.” A curse word littered argument erupts when twelve of the fifteen cast members are vying for the role of Caliban who has appeal not only because he is Prospero’s prisoner and slave:
"Caliban should be First Nations," says Red Coyote [a Native Canadian]. "It’s obvious. Got his land stole."
"No way," says Ppod. "He’s African. Where’s Algiers anyway? North Africa, right? That’s where his mother came from. Look on the map, pox brain."
"So he’s a Muslim? I don’t whoreson think so." VaMoose, another Caliban aspirant.
"No way that he's smelly-fish white trash, anyways,” says Shiv, glaring at Leggs. "Even part white."
"I score," says Leggs. "You heard the man, fen head, it’s final. So suck it."
"Points off you swore," says Ppod.
"Suck it’s not a swear word," says Leggs. "It’s only a diss. Everyone knows that, and the devil take your fingers."
Other popular substitute swear words and insults include red plague, freckled whelp, pied ninny, scurvy, and of course hag-seed which by the end becomes a badge of honor rather than an insult for the entire team of performer prisoners.
Because the program is meant to be part of a literacy program Felix is a teacher and runs his rehearsals like a literature class. Actually this is no different from most professional Shakespeare productions which always tend to be part literature class. In the final pages we get to read the prisoner’s assignments in which they must a imagine how life treats the characters after the curtain falls and what they become. We get some insightful and realistic views, sometimes frighteningly violent, of how human and cruel these characters would be in real life. Atwood mentions in an “Afterword” that she read several non-fiction accounts of prison literacy programs and this enlightening ending is clearly reflective of her research into how real prison theater programs are conducted.
I was thoroughly delighted with this book and whipped through it in almost in a single day. It’s funny, vulgar, warm, angry, poignant, enchanting, majestic, suspenseful, and wise -– all things wondrous, in fact, and everything expected from any superbly mounted Shakespeare production. Hag-Seed will appeal to theater addicts, Shakespeare scholars of all ages, both professional and avocational, and anyone who enjoys thoroughly imaginative fiction. I’ve not read anything remotely like this before and wish that every new book I picked up was half as powerful and affecting in its telling. No thing of darkness here but ah! what rough magic and wonders await the reader in the pages of Atwood's novel.
NOTE: Hag-Seed along with all the others in Hogarth's "Shakespeare Retold" series are available now in their various UK editions: hardcover, paperback and digital. Those who want a US edition of Hag-Seed will have to wait until May 2017. But a warning -- the cover of the US edition is very unattractive (at right) compared to the striking UK version shown on top of this post.
Shakespeare Retold Series (...so far)
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood (The Tempest)
Shylock Is My Name - Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice)
The Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew)
The Gap of Time - Jeanette Winterson (A Winter's Tale)