The Short Version: Felix Phillips, reeling from the death of his daughter, has been deposed as artistic director of the Makeshewig Theater Festival by his unscrupulous associate. After years in exile, he emerges with a plan to get his revenge – a plan that involves teaching theater to prisoners and creating a real-life version of The Tempest. For the play’s the thing wherein he just might catch the conscience of those who wronged him… and maybe his own as well…
The Review: Sometimes an author and a source material are lined up in a way that must be the result of magic. The team behind the Hogarth Shakespeare project has put together one hell of a lineup – Edward St. Aubyn is the ideal person to riff on King Lear, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth will be cold and bloody and great, and Howard Jacobson is perhaps the only writer alive today who could’ve done what he did with Shylock in Shylock is My Name. But Margaret Atwood and The Tempest? This is such stuff as dreams are made on.
Even more wonderfully, Atwood has set her ‘cover version’ in the theater. Not only is it in the theater, it’s theater that interacts with prisoners. I’m lucky enough in my day job at The Public Theater to work with our Mobile Shakespeare Unit – and I’ve been to Rikers and one of the maximum security prisons with some of our tours. I know how incredible theater can be as a tool to change lives within the criminal justice system, firsthand. So to say that the stars were aligned for me and this book is, at the very least, an understatement.
This book also feels like it manages the trick of transporting the story beats of Shakespeare’s original into a modern context without hewing too closely or spinning off too far – it was even a bit of a surprise when certain plot points I ostensibly knew were coming actually arrived, because of how well Atwood had pulled apart and rewoven the strands of the story. It begins rather obviously: we meet Felix, the deposed director of the fictional Makeshiweg Theatre Festival (which feels like a version of the Stratford Festival outside of Toronto) up in Canada. He recounts how he was ousted from his role by his conniving associate director Tony – and so we have our Prospero and our Antonio. But the nice thing is, Felix (and Atwood, by extension) knows Shakespeare the way that Shakespeare’s characters knew the Greek myths – and so as he starts to weave a plot of revenge, he is consciously drawing on this thing he knows so well. He knows he’s working up a plot similar to The Tempest – but the knowing doesn’t make it any less potent; in fact, it makes it more so. Not to draw too many comparisons, but this stands in stark contrast to the way that the characters in Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time knew about Shakespeare and The Winter’s Tale but didn’t seem conscious that they were enacting the exact plot of that play. Felix is well aware of what he’s doing – but it’s few authors who could pull off such a feat. Atwood, blessedly, is one of the best.
He comes to this prison in (admittedly sort of weak) disguise, planning to take over the English department essentially – and he turns it into a theater class. Rather brilliantly, this isn’t some kind of liberal saviourhood thing but rather it develops organically. They don’t put on the plays with standard language and performances but rather they’re able to adapt the texts and they film the performances, cutting them together to make a sort of mash-up live and recorded experience. All in all, it sounds truly like cutting edge theatrical stuff – and Atwood, a lover of the arts and theater in particular, speaks like someone who has the knowledge and experience to be able to express what is and is not possible in a theatrical setting. All of this is possible, given the right support and right passionate leaders of the endeavor. In fact, I can’t help but think what Atwood the director might be possible of… (I should also say that the way Felix’s cast rewrites some of the language actually gives me hope for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s otherwise inscrutable decision to hire brilliant playwrights to ‘update the language’ of the entire canon.)
Anyway, I digress. Felix spends much of the time consumed by the thoughts of revenge – so much so that he begins to lose his grasp of reality a little bit, his own Miranda (lost at age three) appearing as a sort of Miranda-cum-Ariel style apparition. It’s left to you to believe or not this reality, much as several of Shakespeare’s more supernatural questions are left to be interpreted by audiences and performers alike. Even as he turns into a true Prospero, though, he’s still conscious of guiding these hardened men – true criminals all, albeit none of them violent offenders – through a story that doesn’t, at first, appear to offer them any common ground in the way that previous productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar and Richard III did. They go through (and so too does the reader, by extension) a course of study on the play and Atwood-as-teacher never feels didactic or, well, teacherly – but she sneaks in some really insightful readings on the play, in particular the theme of prisons throughout. The way that Felix adapts the play to his surroundings – and the way that, in turn, the play is adapted to the story of Hag-Seed itself – is smart, smart stuff.
Atwood is also hilarious, let me just say. I blushed and guffawed in delight when she delivers the line, “And the three most useless things in the world: a priest’s cock, a nun’s tits, and a heartfelt vote of thanks.” And there are some moments of droll winking wit scattered throughout the novel, something that I’ve begun to notice as a trademark of Atwood’s style (at least in her later works; I haven’t gone back to the older stuff just yet) that absolutely delights me. As I’ve said before, Atwood has a puckish look about her in her author photo these days and it suffuses her work: she’s having fun and no doubt hopes you are too.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s perfect, really – it’s exactly what I was hoping for, as a lover of theater and Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood. In many ways, this is the most theatrical of the Hogarth Shakespeares so far and it succeeds in a way that novels about theater so often fail: it remembers that the play might be the thing… but that it is the people, the players, who make it so. Atwood brings a theater-lover (nay, an arts-lover)’s eye to this story and creates a tale that manages to refresh Shakespeare while also paying perfect homage to the play that is, in many ways, the most overtly theatrical of the canon. For what is Prospero’s last speech other than a heartfelt thank you and goodbye by Shakespeare himself, a moment of humble gratitude for the gift of art that had been bestowed upon him? Atwood is conscious of that to the last – and the thrilling potency of that speech rings throughout the entire novel.