When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.
Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?
I feel I should start this review by saying that although I have read The Tempest and seen a production of it, it was a long time ago and my memory of it starting reading Hag-Seed was fuzzy at best. I did think about reading a summary of the play to remind me of the key points before starting but decided against it, figuring it would be best to go in with as few pre-conceived ideas as possible. I am sure not knowing the play well that there is lots I have missed but that’s o.k. for me – I will leave it for others to analyse the book in more detail.
This, after all, will be read by lots of people who haven’t ever read / seen The Tempest but as a story in it’s own right. I wanted to see if they would be able to do this. The answer, for me, is yes. You could read this book without knowing the original story and I think you would still enjoy it because it’s well written and cleverly plotted, mirroring the original (as I found out after finishing it, when I read the summary provided at the back of the book) but with a modern twist.
This twist sets it in a prison, reflecting the island prison the play originally creates for it’s characters, a stark backdrop where people get to pretend to be people they are not, at least for a little time. This could have made it dark, and there are elements that are, but there is also hope and light as the players get to learn what they might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn, and to shape the play to reflect their lives. There is inspiration in this. Plus, as Hag-seed has a play within a play – Shakespeare’s Tempest against that of the Burgess Correctional Players – there are layers that need unpicking as you read and lots to discover in the story.
As well as the setting, Atwood gets to play with language, so the coarse speech of the prisoners, the rap music they use in place of a script in places, against the language of Shakespeare (they can only use Shakespearean swear words for example once in class). This could be jarring but it isn’t, instead it brings the story bang up to date. And it is quite a story with lots of intrigue and complicated, complex, characters. I can’t say I liked them, they were all just a little bit (or more than a lot) selfish and out for themselves (not a surprise given that vengeance is a key theme throughout). Even those that you can be sympathetic towards aren’t completely innocent.
Their behaviour reflects, I feel, something you see in Atwood’s work – a cynicism, about life and society in general, how selfish we can be and how we are pretty much all slaves to capitalism. Personally, I don’t mind this – though I know it’s not everybody’s cup to tea. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love her work. It makes me think, makes me question, and ensure I don’t think anything for granted. It means her books are always easy to read but do I always need easy? Probably not.
If you like this too, then you’ll like this book. If you want an interesting story with lots of twists, turns and depth, then you’ll like this book too I think. Like I said, it might not be for everyone but it was definitely for me and I liked it a lot as a result. A recommended read!
p.s. I received a copy of this book from blogging for books in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.