This book is part of an amusing project initiated by the Penguin / Hogarth Press to re-tell the stories behind Shakespeare’s plays. In this instance the author has brought a five-hundred-year-old story of treachery, magic, revenge and resolution into the twenty-first century in a reinvention of The Tempest. I enjoyed it from the first to last page although there are a few ‘wobbly parts towards the end. However, I willingly suspended my disbelief and surrendered to the story.
Felix Phillips is Hagseed’s, Prospero. At the start of the novel he is the artistic director of the Makesheweg Theatre Festival and, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Felix is so pre-occupied with conjuring (in his case the artistic conjuring of new ways to imagine theatre productions) that he is not paying attention to the details of administering his domain or watching out for rivals. In addition, Felix has thrown himself into his work, as way to mitigate the pain of coping with the deaths both his wife and daughter. Tony, his assistant, wants to run the Makeshewg Festival himself and succeeds in usurping Felix and having him ousted from his position in a most undignified way; setting him adrift in an ocean of anger and confusion. Kicked out of his job, Felix goes into a self-imposed exile renting a primitive cabin in a rural area. His cabin is a kind of island where he languishes, mourning the loss of his little girl Miranda who comes to him in fanciful apparitions as part of his grieving process. Some years later he revives his role as director at a prison where he finds employment as a theatre arts teacher. His work is meant to be part of the prisoners’ rehabilitation. Several years into the program he sees an opportunity for revenge against Tony and his cohorts by stirring up a storm of illusions with the help of the prisoners staging Felix’s own version of The Tempest for some visiting dignitaries. These dignitaries include Tony, who is by now an elected member of government.
The devices Ms. Atwood uses to support this version of The Tempest fit quite nicely into the twenty-first century. Felix’s Ariel is a prisoner; a master of the art of digital illusion. Caliban, the Hagseed (meaning the offspring of a witch) is an ex-soldier with PTSD who has been convicted of break and enter crimes. The roster of characters accounts for everyone Shakespeare invented and while the ghostly Miranda remains present in the background of Felix’s imagination the actress who was to play Miranda in his original festival production agrees to take on the role.
Then there is the problem of how to get a group of largely uneducated criminals to relate to the esoteric Elizabethan poetry and songs of the play. Ms. Atwood’s solution is to have the players update the lyrics where necessary and interpret them as rap songs. Is that not both logical and brilliant? I also thought it hilarious that to in order make the idea of a wood sprite palatable to these hardened prisoners Ariel is translated into an alien visiting from outer space. Now, that is funny.
The story ends as it should and does in the original, with all the antagonists and tormenters humbled and rendered penitent. Felix is reinstated in the job he loved as administrator and creative force behind the Makeshweg Festival. However, while the story ends with Felix supposedly living happily ever after there is a chapter devoted to epilogues where the actors imagine what happened to the play’s principal characters after they left the island where they were imprisoned.
The invention of the prisoners providing their own epilogues would have solved an interesting problem for the author as in Shakespeare’s epilogue in The Tempest Prospero speaks directly to the audience and says that he has voluntarily given up his magic and stripped himself down to the state of being an ordinary mortal trusting in the good will of the world to allow him to escape his island prison and carry on just like everyone else. This epilogue is thought by some scholars to represent Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage because it was one of the last plays he wrote before he returned to his home town to spend the rest of his life as a businessman. However, in Hagseed, Felix is entering a phase of his life when he can revive his old magical powers of creating art in the theatre. Well, such re-tellings do not work for the reader unless the reader is willing to go along on the adventure and is open to the spirit of the invention. This is a funny, entertaining book … “our revels now have ended…” it would be unforgivably petty to nit-pick!