Monday, January 16, 2017

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I have never been a fan of adaptations and classic plays and operas reset into modern times.  One particularly egregious example, which infuriated me, was a Mozart opera set in a bowling alley.  Another noted example is Hamlet played with no background, no props and all the actors dressed in black with black turtlenecks.  However, lately, I have enjoyed some of the products of the Hogarth Shakespeare Press.  Hogarth, founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, went out of business in 1946.  In 2010, the press was revived by Random House under the Crown Printing label, with the stated purpose of issuing modern adaptations.  This novel was commissioned by Random House as part of its Hogarth series of re-telling of Shakespeare plays.  Other authors participating in the series include Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson, and Tracy Chevalier, among others.  I have read Taming of the Shrew as Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The latest addition to this series is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.  She retells Shakespeare’s Tempest cleverly set in a prison.  Tastes change as time passes.

Felix is a renowned theater director at the Makeshiweg Theater Festival.  He is planning a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest.  Tony covets Felix position, and objects to the new version, and he plots to bring down Felix and place himself in Felix’s job.

Felix bitterly accepts the loss of his job, and he plots revenge on Tony.  Felix stays secluded, but he answers an ad for someone to teach literacy in a local prison.  Felix applies for the job – no one else did – and he agrees to take on teaching in a prison, provided he can have complete artistic control, and he must beallowed to work ubder the name of Mr. Duke.  At first, the prison administration is skeptical, but after he puts on several productions, they see the change in the prisoners, and encourage him to continue.

Twelve years later, Felix still seethes at Tony’s duplicity.  He learns that the Minister of Justice and the head of the prison system are scheming to do away with Felix and the literacy program.  He sees an opportunity to exact revenge, help some of the inmates, and have some fun at the same time.  Felix is also haunted by the death of his daughter, Miranda, at age three.  As he plunges into the production, he becomes more and more like Prospero.  He even imagines his daughter is speaking to him.  She wants to play Miranda, but that spot has been cast for Anne-Mariel, a professional actor and friend of Felix.

While the premise of the story edges on the preposterous, it is all done in great fun.  Some smuggled grapes – laced with narcotics – some fancy electrical equipment brought in under the excuse of sticking to a real theater experience, and with the help of Anne-Marie as Miranda, Felix pulls off the event.  He saves the program, and he helps the inmates in various ways.

I have not included any excerpts in this review, because the language of Shakespeare, the rap versions of the Bard’s lines, and the near hallucinations of Felix of his deceased daughter, all meld into one terrific story.  Margaret Atwood has assembled an interesting and fun version of The Tempest.  Several other plays have been adapted, and I can’t wait until I discover where my newly-found tastes will take me.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/11/17

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