Hag-Seed’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, whereby a bunch of writers, from Jeanette Winterson to Gillian Flynn, are rewriting the Bard’s plays. Hag-Seed, as fans or theatre-goers will guess, is Atwood’s The Tempest, recast in a contemporary Canadian prison: it’s bawdy and bold and very meta, but, though it pains us to admit it, we’re not especially impressed.
So, this works on various levels. So, first: Felix is a theatre director whose wife, and then daughter (Miranda, natch), has died. He’s also the director of a local theatre festival, and he’s readying to put on his own version of The Tempest when he’s abruptly sacked by his scheming right-hand man, Tony. Feeling too old, at fifty, to restart his career, Felix casts himself off into the wilderness, holing up in a Prospero-like shed/cell for twelve years with only the ghost of his deceased child for company, until the opportunity for revenge presents itself. If you don’t know the original, it’s easy enough to guess that Prospero, Duke of Milan, was displaced by his evil brother Antonio, put to sea with his daughter, Miranda, both of them washing up on an almost uninhabited island where they stayed until a ship carrying said Antonio and the King of Naples was passing by: Prospero used his fairy-servant/slave/confidante Ariel to whip up the titular storm so that the ship was seemingly wrecked and the passengers were at his mercy. In Atwood’s version, then, Felix is Prospero; Miranda is, duh, Miranda; Tony is Antonio; etc, etc, etc – the whole cast is there in one form or another. But it gets properly meta when we get into the revenge bit: Felix gets an incognito gig teaching drama to inmates at a local prison (he’s Mr. Duke, chortle chortle), and when, four years in, he realizes that Tony and his cronies will be visiting to inspect the literacy programme (with a view to shutting it down), he decides that now’s the time to finally stage his long-ago abandoned The Tempest. Not only that, but he plans to trap the visitors in the prison and mess with them, true Prospero-style, terrorizing them until he gets his way – that is, his old job back, and, secondarily, the literacy programme maintained.
Still with us? Great. It’s a clever adaptation – Atwood’s layered the characters and the plots upon one another in a really nicely Shakespearean way so that people are doubled, illusions are conjured, and reality is totally messed with, and she also uses the prisoners/education device to comment upon the crowd appeal of Shakespeare, the lack of elitism in his actors and in the plays, the provisional nature of the text and the notion of improvisation, so that even as her book is very carefully constructed, Felix’s cast of inmates rewrite the script to reflect their own reading of the text and how it applies to their own circumstances. So, for instance, Shakespeare’s songs become raps and his fairies become aliens, and the prisoners speculate on the afterlife of the characters. Prospero’s ‘cell’ becomes Felix’s hut becomes an actual prison cell becomes a stage set becomes, again, a cell, as Tony & co. are taken hostage. She uses the drama classes, in which the actors/prisoners debate the meaning of the text and the motivations of the characters, to analyse Shakespeare’s own intentions and make us, as well as them, question the way one might read (or rewrite) the play. And, as she makes very clear, The Tempest is a show about putting on a show, as Prospero manipulates everyone around him, and here we’ve got a book about a guy putting on a show within a show, even as he’s an unwitting proxy for the lead in the original Tempest. Phew.
But does it work? Well, it depends what you’re after. It’s a very good way of digging through The Tempest, as above; it’s funny, in a slapstick way (again, pretty Shakespearian); it’s a quick read and it’ll probably make people a little more receptive to the original play, which isn’t always the most popular. But it’s also a little shallow, if we move beyond the intellectual trickery and in-jokes. The plot relies on devices that don’t really hold much water (there’s an apt boat metaphor for you): even aside from the credibility of Felix living in abeyance in a shed for so long, when we get to the pivotal revenge plot, so much of it beggars belief – not so much the drug smuggling and the CCTV hacking (hey, we’ve seen Orange is the New Black – don’t underestimate the inmates!) as the credulity of Tony and the others (what, they’d just cry, follow Felix’s cues, accept his terms? Not to mention the love-story…) and the passivity of the inmates themselves (one minute they’re worried about parole, the next minute they’re happily spiking government ministers because their mad drama teacher asks them to?). Okay, it’s a comedy, and okay, maybe we should get over it, but there’s a lack of psychological credibility in pretty much the entire cast, and that bothered us – because if there’s one thing, aside from snappy wordplay, that we value in Shakespeare, it’s the psychological credibility. They’re all one-dimensional, Felix included, and we know that Atwood, too, can do moral complexity with the best of them. And there’s also both an over-reliance and an under-reliance of exposition in the book that was tiresome: on the one hand, we’re hearing a lot about people getting in cars, going to shops, going through security, fabricating costumes – but on the other hand, the whole section when Felix has to explain to the inmates, and his semi-complicit colleagues on the outside, what he’s planning, why he’s planning it, and why they might want to cooperate, well, all that’s literally skipped. The whole first half, or more, of the book, feels at least partly over-done, and the section that might lend the story real risk, real emotional weight, is absent. Of course, the same might be said for The Tempest – it’s too neat, it’s too convenient, it dodges the darkness – and in that respect, you might say we’re totally missing the point. But even acknowledging that, what really bothers us, again, is that Atwood can do – could have done – better.
Any Cop?: Atwood fans might go for it in a spirit of gotta-catch-em-all, but we’d suggest skipping this one.