Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has outdone herself in this re-staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For those of you unsure whether or not you will grasp it, forget that notion. The play, which is being performed scene by scene for film, is thoroughly explained by the director to the players who happen to be presently the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Eventually, the screening of the play for an audience of government and prison officials is paralleled with a real-life enactment of the play featuring the inmates, a female dancer, and the play's director. Atwood kindly gives a short and snappy synopsis of Shakespeare’s original story after her own presentation to refresh our memories. If you have the book, you can read that first if you want.

The Director of the Fletcher Correctional Players, once a Duke who directed plays for Canada's prestigious Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, takes the role of Prospero himself. He loses his position at the theatre festival one year and is pushed out to sea in a small boat (rusty old car) where he washes up in a cave-like rental for some years before he decides to stage a comeback using the Fletcher Correctional Players.

The audio for this book is particularly good. Some of the Fletcher Players shorten and update Shakespeare into current rap rhyming lyrics. This seems so entirely appropriate since Shakespeare often did the same, not in such short meter, but to the same end. And as the Director/Duke points out, Shakespeare often appeared to modify and create character’s speeches on the spot in the theatre, depending on the skills of the person in the role.

The Director had a rule for inmates: they couldn’t swear at one another using the more commonplace four-letter words we are familiar with, but they were allowed to use Shakespeare’s own swear words, e.g., born to be hanged, whoreson, pied ninny, hag-seed, abhorred slave, red plague, etc. Caliban calls himself hag-seed, and though his role is central to this retelling, the real thrust of Shakespeare's story belongs to Prospero, who seeks revenge for his dismissal so late in life.

There is real tension in this re-telling, and readers are dying to know how it is going to work out. Prospero’s plan is an elaborate deception featuring magic, and in this case, eavesdropping and kidnapping within a prison environment. We are at the edge of our seats to know what Prospero has in mind and whether his chosen goblins can pull it off without losing the thread (or losing their parole).

The play is a big success, and after the production is all over, the Director/Duke/Prospero gives the players the opportunity to discuss the outcome of the play as they see it. This important part of Atwood’s presentation fills out our modern perception of the centuries-old play, as each of the main characters tries to explain what might have become of them after the action of the play as written has ended.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we get at least one unpleasant but realistic take on the journey back to power for Prospero. The Miranda role, in another’s telling, is a completely unexpected evolution along the lines of the action movie grande dames like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger.

But the most rewarding of the after-stories is the one presented by Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, who escapes the play altogether and creates a new one. And this is why this book is called Hag-Seed. In the end, the story is not about that old revenge play The Tempest at all, but about the rolling ball of creation, and how it is impossible to stop its onward journey.

I had access to the paper copy of this book while I listened, which allowed me to get every nuance. If one must choose one, I think I would go with the audio, which is beautifully read by R.H. Thomson, and who has a string of screen and theatre credits to his name. Produced by Penguin Random House Audio, the production is also available as Whisper-sync from Audible. Hogarth Shakespeare, a division of Penguin Random House, produces the paper copy. Choose your weapon and let the show begin.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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