"Drinking his first coffee, he peers out of the window. Its overcast and freezing cold: the pane is scrolled with his gelid breath."
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold is one of a number of titles published this year by Hogarth Press as part of the Shakespeare 400 commemorations which has seen writers including Ann Tyler, Jeanette Winterton and Howard Jacobson reinterpreting the Bard's work. In this case Margaret Atwood takes on the challenge of adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest; and what a bloody good job she does too.
The Tempest, as you know of course, is a brilliant play combining romance and retribution with mysticism and magic against the backdrop of a tiny and remote island. Atwood cleverly brings the source material right up to date with a post-modern twist which sees the story, and the play within a story, set in a high security prison facility.
The novel concerns Felix, the former Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival (and modern day Prospero) who having been banished to a small town takes a teaching job at a prison. Felix has a vision; to stage the version of The Tempest he's always dreamed of and now, as part of the 'Freedom through Literacy' programme he's teaching he will stage the production with a cast of inmates. "Did Shakespeare always know what he was doing, or was he sleepwalking part of the time? In the flow? In a trance?" asks Felix, but will his new production heal his emotional wounds?
The story follows Felix's challenge of casting and staging the play before the final, and dramatic, performance itself in front of a personally selected audience.
Margaret Atwood really delivers in this adaptation because she is bold enough to adapt not just the play itself but the 'mythology' surrounding this most unusual of Shakespeare's works which means accepting all the previous adaptations and performances which have gone before. More will be aware of The Tempest and characters such as Caliban than have actually seen or read the play and I think this is exactly what Atwood is adapting.
The result is a novel which effectively adapts the characters and the plot but does so in such a way that modern day audiences can read both a new story and/or a reinterpretation of the original play depending on what they individually bring to the book.
The Tempest when originally staged made use of the very latest special theatrical effects available just as Felix's production makes use of video effects and contemporary music and I for one can't wait for the RSC's new production this Winter which is sure to push the boundaries even further.
I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood, published by Vintage, 294 pages