Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which contemporary authors reimagine some of the Bard’s most famous plays. The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a former duke exiled with his daughter, Miranda, to a deserted island, where he studies sorcery and plots revenge. Hag-Seed sticks close to the play’s themes of magic, retribution and illusion, yet Atwood finds a way to root the story in contemporary Canada with satisfying results.
Felix is about to stage a brand new production of The Tempest, starring himself as Prospero, when he is unceremoniously ousted from his position as artistic director at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Widowed and still mourning the death of his young daughter, Miranda, he moves to an isolated farmhouse in the country, changes his name to Mr. Duke and indulges in dreams of vengeance and painful memories of his lost family. Over a decade later, Felix is running a drama program in a local prison. When rumors reach him that funding for the program is going to be cut and that the politicians who hold the purse strings have ties to his former workplace, the opportunity to retaliate is too promising to pass up. Felix decides that the time is right for the inmates to perform The Tempest.
Used to more swashbuckling fare, like Macbeth and Henry IV, the prisoners are reluctant to take on a play with fairies, monsters and songs. But Felix finds ways to engage his cast. Soon, the inmates are fighting over playing the spirit Ariel and writing additional tunes for Caliban. Incarceration allows them to identify with the characters who are most confined by circumstances, and as much as Felix exploits their empathy, he is also transformed by it.
Atwood has tremendous fun with Hag-Seed. Those who know the play will especially enjoy her artful treatment of its more poignant storylines. But even someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare will by entertained by this compelling tale of enchantment and second chances, and the rough magic it so delightfully embodies.