Jan. 21st, 2017

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Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's contribution to the Hogarth Press's series of contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare. It's a Russian doll of a book, a retelling of The Tempest which is also a novel about a production of The Tempest which is derailed, for at least some of the audience, by an act of revenge based upon The Tempest. The central character is Felix Phillips, a somewhat experimental theatre director (his productions include Pericles with spaceships and The Winter's Tale with Hermione as a vampire) who is dismissed from his post as Artistic Director of a theatre festival due to the manipulations of the scheming, ambitious Tony. He disappears from public view, living like a hermit in a tumbledown shack and dreaming of revenge. His opportunity arises after he takes a job running an adult literacy programme in a prison, teaching medium-security prisoners (hackers, fraudsters, pickpockets) to perform Shakespeare, when he discovers that his enemies will be attending the performance, and sees his chance to act.

It's beautifully written, as you'd expect from Atwood; sparkling, witty, compassionate, moving. The structure enables her to explore the original play and characters both through the retelling and more directly, as Felix and his class prepare for their production. I think it was particularly good to read this the week after seeing the live streaming of the RSC's current production of The Tempest, as that meant that the plot was fresh in my mind (I found while watching the RSC production that I'd forgotten quite a lot of the plot), though I think the book would still have been enjoyable if I hadn't remembered it so clearly or even if I didn't know the play at all.


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