What this is not: A realistic, believable depiction of a prison system theater program.
What this is: Pretty damn amusing.
Do you need to have read ‘The Tempest’ before reading this? Absolutely nope. (Though it wouldn’t hurt, naturally.) But Atwood seamlessly works in explanations of everything you need to know.
Atwood’s latest is part of the “Hogarth Shakespeare” series, in which contemporary authors have been invited to give us their retellings of and stories inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. ‘Hag-Seed’ refers, of course, to the character of Caliban in The Tempest, and this is Atwood’s take on the play. There’s more than one ‘Tempest’ in this book. We start with famed and eccentric theater director Felix, who’s proud as can be of the Makeshiweg Festival, a renowned annual theater event (apparently, a literary equivalent to the real-life Ontario Stratford Festival. [https://www.stratfordfestival.ca]). As the story opens, Felix is planning a radical production of ‘The Tempest’ but is unexpectedly deposed from his beloved position as director by the betrayal of a power-hungry subordinate who sees theater administration as only the first step on the rung of the ladder of local politics. Broken and angry, Felix retreats to a rural ‘hermitage’ where he nurses his wounds and nurtures the imaginary(?) ghost of his dead daughter, Miranda. Here, we begin to see the asymmetrical correlation between Felix’s life and the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest.’
Years later, Felix ventures back into society – of a sort. He sees a job opening advertised for a theater director – as part of an experimental enrichment program at the local jail. He takes the job under a pseudonym, and embarks upon introducing convicts to the glories of Shakespeare. The endeavor actually goes swimmingly – but when an upcoming visit from local dignitaries is announced, and that visit is revealed to include his old nemesis, who on top of everything else, wants to cut funding for the arts, a complex plot for revenge is conceived. And of course, it will involve a production of ‘The Tempest.’
A must-read for both Atwood fans and theater buffs.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Hogarth for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.