Hag-seed (Margaret Atwood)

Back in October, I went to A conversation with Margaret Atwood in Oxford, where Margaret Atwood was talking about Hagseed, her modern re-interpretation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection. I can tell you now, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen tiny little Margaret Atwood rapping Shakespeare. I bought the signed paperback, and it promptly got lost in my ever-expanding TBR pile.

The Hogarth Shakespeare series invites bestselling writers to re-imagine a Shakespearean tale for the modern audience. Margaret Atwood said that she told them that if she didn’t do the Tempest, then she wasn’t doing a book for them, so voila – who turns down Margaret Atwood? She transforms Prospero into an ailing Artistic Director of a festival theatre, Antonio is his scheming underling, his Miranda died aged three. His island is a self-imposed solitary, only broken up by teaching a Shakespeare programme at the local penitentiary.

The plot goes thusly: When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg theatre festival by his ambitious assistant Tony, his production of the Tempest is cancelled.  Felix is exiled to a heartbroken life with only the fantasy of his daughter Miranda – who’d died twelve years periviously aged three – and to plot his eventual revenge. He takes up a job teaching theatre to the inmates on a literary programme at a nearby prison, and finds himself making a modicum of success in the role, far from the reach of those he despises. When a pair of ministers Felix was once familiar with decide to visit the prison’s programme, Felix finds his opportunity for revenge has come, and sets the stage for a tumultuous Tempest. With the help of his inmate crew, with digital effects and masterful re-interpretations, Felix sets up a twist – interactive and immersive. Tony won’t know what hit him.

As far as reimagining the Tempest goes, I think it’s been done rather masterfully. It addresses some of the problems with the play in modern times, that of slavery, of prisons, of revenge and also that Ariel is a fairy, that Caliban is treated like a monster, that there are very long and very, very boring passages in the play (Prospero, I’m looking at you). And imagining a situation nowadays where a man and his daughter get washed up on an island (unlikely) and then years a boat is tossed ashore (even more unlikely) would require a lot of working out. So I think Atwood’s done an excellent job of resetting the play, with self-imposed isolation rather than an actual, physical island. Felix’s island is his grief and loneliness.

It wasn’t a fun, easy read, but it was certainly imaginative. Felix is as irritatingly detestable as Prospero. One of my favourite things is that Felix gets his class/cast to read closely through the play and identify all the swear words in the play – and then they are only ever allowed to use those swearwords in rehearsal, rather than effing and blinding which is really, really amusing! I also thought it was imaginative to recast some of the play as a rap, which brings me back to the comment of “you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Margaret Atwood rap Shakespeare”. When I read that section in the book, I spat my tea out, just remembering. The other raps were … different, but I’m not a big rapper so I have no idea really.

Look, if you like Shakespeare, you’ll probably appreciate this book. If you think the language of Shakespeare is far too dry, but you’re interested then give this a go. it’s hard separating my knowledge of the play whilst reading this book – but it was a good re-telling and it was definitely more modern than the play itself. If you hate Shakespeare and like your books to have a ton of action, sorry pal, this probably isn’t for you.

My brother bought me The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, the retelling of A Winter’s Tale for Christmas, so that is on my ever-expanding TBR pile, behind all the books I’ve borrowed recently, and a few that have been waiting for quite the while!

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