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Felix Phillips, Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival, is having a run of unfortunate events these days. Having lost his wife, then shortly thereafter his young daughter, he had thrown himself into a very ambitious and avant-garde production of his favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, only to have been betrayed by an alliance of plotting so-called friends to have him removed from his position. Felix storms off the set, and seems to disappear from the theater scene, all the while sheltering in his home (with the spirit of his dead daughter) and planning his big come back, and his revenge. Atwood sets up a Shakespearean revenge plot with subtle bits of comedy, the supernatural, and some reconciliation all worthy of the Bard's The Tempest.
Ten years later, Felix's former colleagues have lost connection with the man they double-crossed, but Felix has been watching them, noting every move meticulously. Now he resurfaces as Mr. Duke, the new Artistic Director of The Fletcher County Correctional Institute in Ontario, courtesy of the Literacy Through Literature program, financed by a city official that once conspired to take his job at the Makeshiweg. Of course, his project is to be The Tempest. He plans on doing his version and inviting the unsuspecting traitors to the opening performance. He casts himself as the play's Duke (Duke of Milan) that has been living in exile, Prospero, a powerful magician that has worked up some nasty tricks tucked up his sleeves. He'll have his revenge and he'll have his Tempest. But, Shakespeare and Atwood would never let such a plot go forth so smoothly, or predictably...double, double toil and trouble...
The real story and the best part of the novel take place at the prison. Duke's professionalism and love of the theater shine through his interactions with the prisoners in spite of his vengeful plan. Aware of the population's histories, he allows them only swear words they can pull from the play they are doing (Hagseed=the witches son Caliban; Poisonous bunch-backed toad!; scurvy companion; abortive, rooting hog! ). Profanity not directly from Shakespeare earns them penalty points. It makes for imagining some funny scenes. Unforeseen by Mr. Duke when he conjured up his plan was how Shakespeare's writing would positively affect the inmates. The more they participate, the more they begin to understand his times and his themes and to respect him and his writing. Under the spell of the Bard, they begin writing their own takes on the play, mostly rap, which are at times both profound and profane. It's brutally clever, wild and tightly strung.
As with The Tempest, Hag-Seed contains multiple storylines within storylines and multiple lessons that softened the sting of revenge and dark intentions. Trying to summarize Atwood's distinctive style is a ridiculous endeavor. While her strong political themes and parallels clearly steer her stories, without quoting her it's impossible to grasp the effectiveness of her imagination and emotions in each scene. Atwood always demands a good hard bit of reexamination, to adjust the focus from dystopia or fiction into the present real moment. It is usually in retrospect that the full vision of Atwood's novels comes into view, at least for me. (This wasn't like her dystopian The Handmaid's Tale, but it does deserve a good look back.) Hag-Seed wasn't my favorite Atwood novel, though I do recognize the brilliance (and I love The Tempest). I personally prefer her more dystopian and political novels, and I know that I could not have gotten through this if I had tried to read the text.
The play's the thing, and here it is clearly outlined and explained as Mr. Duke redirect's his own version. Even if you aren't familiar with Shakespeare's play you'll be kept on course (but a quick Wiki look would be a great help). In the case of Hag-Seed, the play may not be the thing -- it may be the narration of Atwood's writing. R.H. Thompson is a-maz-ing! He raps the lyrics of the prisoners with complete conviction and jaw-dropping talent. How he did it so perfectly, I don't know, but this is a case where he could quit his day job. This is the performance of the year in audiobooks!
9 of 11 people found this review helpful
I'm not sure who, aside from English teachers and theater buffs, would be the audience for this novel. But, as a member of both subcultures, I loved it! I teach The Tempest each year to my seniors, and I am thinking quite seriously about having them read Hag-Seed in tandem with it. Margaret Atwood is one of the great writers of our time! Phenomenal work!
1 of 1 people found this review helpful