Some years ago, there was a television series from Canada called Slings and Arrows. It was set mostly in the theater where a Shakespeare festival was located, and involved (over several seasons) both satirical and sometimes almost gothic portrayals of the behind-the-scenes conflicts, petty backstage politics, and interactions among administrators of the festival, actors, directors, and others, some comical, some sharply satirical, occasionally moving and even tragic. I mention this memorable television series because for the first fifty or so pages of Margaret Atwood’s new “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, called Hagseed, I was constantly reminded of it and began wondering if Atwood had somehow decided to write a proposal for a new season of the show.
Because I am a longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s novels, having read Surfacing when it first came out and every subsequent novel (even including her odd non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, and several of her children’s books), I was feeling some concern as I read the beginning of Hagseed. This seemed like a clever enough idea of how to do an adaptation of The Tempest, but as the unraveling of the life and career or Felix Phillips, the actor, director, and artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival was revealed–complete with an ambitious and ruthless young “assistant,” Tony, who behaved precisely as did the young woman assistant in All About Eve (and maybe we should assume, as Prospero’s younger brother Antonio behaved around his court), I began to wonder whether I was reading evidence of a failure of imagination on Atwood’s part. Felix, whose only child and subsequently his wife, had died, leaving him with mostly painful memories of a happy marriage,is deposed from his directorship, with his production of The Tempest cancelled, and withdraws into a kind of self-imposed exile following Tony’s successful takeover of the festival, and “finds” that his daughter, Miranda, already dead for several years, has become his imaginary companion in the hovel he has chosen for his hermitage.
It is only when Felix applies to take over a “literacy project” in a nearby prison, disguising himself as “Mr. Duke,” (though the woman who hires him knows perfectly well who he really is, or was), and proceeds to develop a small theatrical company composed entirely of inmates of the prison who sign up for his course, producing one play each year, which is videotaped and broadcast, when complete, to the rest of the inmates of the prison, that the brilliance of Atwood’s conception begins to emerge.. Although Atwood never mentions the well-known prison drama projects such as the one portrayed in the excellent documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars, the successful productions Felix/Mr. Duke mounts in the prison follow similar paths, culminating in this narrative with a production of The Tempest, with Felix playing Prospero and an actress from his former festival company playing Miranda. And in this narrative, we realize that though Felix is a creative and sometimes innovative director, it is his interaction with the inmates–the actors–who create the challenges and new insights that make the production exciting and revelatory.
There is more, and that is fortunate. Some of the “more” is strangely awkward and does not contribute to the success of the novel, but the very successful “more” comes in the form of the characterizations of the inmates/actors and their interaction with Felix and, much more importantly, with Shakespeare and The Tempest. Atwood’s brilliance (on several levels) flashes forward in the second half of this novel and especially in the final sequences involving the actors and their understanding of the play they have performed. The energy, insights, and comedy, both satirical and buffoonish, that come from the inmates’ interpretations and understanding of the play are more than enough reward for the occasional clumsiness and even the uncomfortable familiarity of the opening sequences and the rather laborious exposition of Felix’s situation in the world.
I fully expected when I started reading to have a slam-dunk five star novel to review–that is what I expect of Margaret Atwood (even though I disliked the Oryx and Crake trilogy–I still thought it was brilliant)–but my first reactions were negative and I actually took the trouble to re-read the first 100 pages after finishing the novel to see if I had been wrong. Not so. This is not up to Atwood’s best work by a long way, but she so fully redeems it in the final two-thirds that I found myself responding with both elation and very deep sadness at the end–not so much because of Felix’s “success,” but because of the power of Atwood’s insights into The Tempest, as filtered through the wonderful range of characters she creates for us in presenting not only the cast and crew of the production, but the wonderful re-written passages used by the actors to present and interpret their understanding of the play. The Tempest is, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, open to a range of interpretations, and Atwood exploits that richness to rescue her novel and make it a thing of fascination, even with its flaws.
This probably will not be the best of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels based on Shakespeare’s plays, written by a variety of contemporary writers, but it is well worth reading and especially worth persevering through the opening section to reach the power and beautify of the finale.