I bought 'Hag-Seed' by Margaret Atwood for Monkey for Christmas, since we seem to be working our way through her complete oeuvre (her 'by the same author' section in this book takes up two pages). Monkey recommended I read the story of The Tempest from Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories, and it was certainly a good idea because what you are appreciating in this book is the skill in the retelling of the classic tale of enchantment and revenge. This book is one of eight being published under the title of Hogarth Shakespeare (named for the Hogarth Press founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), that are retellings of Shakespeare stories by modern authors (more to come as I have just, by coincidence, read another of them).
In this tale we have Felix, a renown theatre director, who gets usurped by one of his assistants and pushed out of his beloved Makeshiweg Festival, just as he is planning a flamboyant production of The Tempest. He takes his ejection seriously and disappears himself to a remote farmhouse cottage where he lives an austere and lonely life with only the ghost of his long dead daughter Miranda for company. After many years of brooding and plotting he sees an advertisement for someone to take over a Literacy Through Literature project for inmates at the local prison. Estelle, the woman who hires him, knows who he is, but agrees to keep his real identity secret when he takes on the job. He introduces the inmates to the joys of Shakespeare, and over the next few years they create productions (on film for the entertainment of the staff and other inmates only) of some of the more macho tragedies. I was a little disappointed with Margaret Atwood's assumption that the men would reject anything vaguely sappy or sentimental and would only play the female parts if they were 'nasty' people. Felix develops quite a reputation and the courses are popular, and then one year he hears that his former adversaries, who have now both gone into politics, will be coming to visit the prison and are planning to remove the funding for his project. It is at this point that he decides to exact his revenge. With the help of Bent Pencil, SnakeEye, 8Handz, Wonderboy, Leggs and the rest of the gang they put on a performance that will not be soon forgotten.
The book takes us through the stages of their rehearsals and develops Felix's relationships with the prisoners, and the young woman Anne-Marie who he brings in to play Miranda opposite himself as Prospero. And all the while, back at his cottage waits the ghost of his daughter, who, strangely, has grown up with the passing years, and gone from playing outdoors to playing chess with him in the evenings. What is so good about the book is how closely she has stuck to the plot and characters of the play, their motivations and alterations, and even the denouement with its nightmare-like tempest. I found myself both rooting for Prospero/Felix and despising his selfishness. I particularly liked the way that the inmates are only allowed to use curse words that appear in the play, and then how at the end they all have to write a piece about what might happen to their character after the play, and their ideas point out quite neatly how the ending that Shakespeare wrote was rather limp and does not follow well from the previous behaviour of the characters.
Here we get an idea of the early years in the cottage, Felix 'imagining' Miranda:
"During the day she was often outside, playing in the field behind the house or in the woodlot at the back. He would see a cloud of butterflies lift in the meadow : she must have startled them. When blue jays or crows would make a fuss in the woods, he'd conclude that Miranda had been walking there. Squirrels chattered at her, grouse whirred away at her approach. In the dusk, fireflies marked her path, and owls greeted her with muffled calls.
In winters, when the snow drifted in the laneway and the wind howled, she'd slip outside without a second thought. She didn't dress as warmly as she ought to have done, despite his nagging about mittens, but nothing happened as a consequence: no colds, no flu. In fact, she was never ill, unlike himself. When he was sick she tiptoed around him, anxious; but he never had to worry about her, because what harm could possibly come to her? She was beyond harm." (p.46-7)
Now Miranda is a teenager. While I felt sad for him in his grief what you also see is, like Prospero, Felix has his daughter captive, he can turn her into exactly the person he wants her to be:
"But what has his care amounted to? He's protected her, true, but hasn't he overdone it? There are so many things he should be able to offer her. She should have what other girls her age take for granted, not that he know what those things are. Clothes, certainly. Pretty clothes, more clothes than she has at her disposal now. She seems to go around in makeshifts, fabricated out of cheesecloth and old bedsheets. She ought to have silks and velvets, or mini-skirts and those tall boots girls these days seems so fond of. She ought to have an iPhone, in a pastel shade. She ought to be painting her nails blue or silver or green, chattering with her friends, listening to music through pink ear buds. Going to parties.
He's been such a failure as a parent. How can he make it up to her? It's a wonder she isn't sulkier, cooped up here with nobody but her shabby old father; but then, she doesn't know what she's missing. Still, he's been able to teach her a lot of things that most girls her age would never have a chance of learning."
I enjoyed that the book is not just a rewriting of the play, but it is also about the play itself; I felt like I got to know the plot and the characters in two layers, from both the overarching story and the play within it. Here Felix is preparing for the final performance:
"His voice sounded fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? How to convey each delicate shade of meaning and intention? It can't be done.
They had cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.
Don't quit now, he tells himself. There's too much at stake.
He'll try the line again. Should it be more like an order or more like an invitation? How far away does he think Ariel is when he's saying this? Or calling it? A sibilant or a shout? He's imagined himself in the scene so often he hardly knows how to play it. He can never match his own exalted conception of it.
'Approach, my Ariel.' He leans forward, as if listening. 'Come!'
Right next to his ear he hears Miranda's voice. It's barely a whisper, but he hears it.
All hail, great master, grave sir, hail! I come
to answer thy best pleasure, be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds; to thy strong bidding, task
Ariel and all his quality.
Felix drops his staff as if it's burning him. Did that really happen? Yes, it did! He heard it!
Miranda's made a decision: she'll be understudying Ariel - surely he can't raise any objection to that.
How clever of her, how perfect! She's found the one part that will let her blend seamlessly at rehearsals. Only he will be able to see her, from time to time. Only he will hear her. She'll be invisible to every eyeball else." (p.179-80)
Unlike Prospero we see a change in Felix, his life is transformed by his connection with the people who are in a real life prison, they are not just tools with which he wishes to enact his revenge, they make his life better and he learns from them. I think the book is an excellent testament to Margaret Atwood's true skill as a writer. She tells the story faithfully as Shakespeare created it, but still manages to make both it and the characters her own.