'The Hogarth Shakespeare Project' commissions renowned writers to retell and modernize Shakepeare's works. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a contemporary version of 'The Tempest.'
In a nutshell: The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a duke that's been deposed and exiled by his treacherous brother Antonio, who's in cahoots with the King. The banished Prospero is stranded on an island with his young daughter Miranda, the monster(ish) Caliban, and the mystical spirit Ariel. After many years Prospero, who's mastered the art of magic, manages to lure his enemies to the island with a bogus tempest. Once the usurpers are in his power, Prospero proceeds to get his revenge.
I'm going to be upfront here and admit that - soon after starting this book - I watched the 2010 film 'The Tempest' (starring Helen Mirren as a female version of Prospero), so I'd know what was going on.
On to the review:
Felix Phillips is the cutting-edge artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival in Ontario - about to produce The Tempest - when he's ousted by his cunning, manipulative assistant Tony. Felix is already reeling from the death of his three-year-old daughter Miranda, so - completely downtrodden - he goes off to live in a lonely shack and nurture plans of revenge.
Though Felix lives alone he imagines Miranda is still with him.....growing up as the years pass. In Felix's mind he and Miranda share meals, have conversations, walk in the yard, play chess, and so on. After a decade or so Felix gets tired of his lonely isolation and - calling himself Mr. Duke - takes a job with the "Literacy Through Literature” program at the local Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Felix is a gifted and inventive thespian, and - working with
medium-security male inmates - he stages innovative versions of Shakespeare plays.
Finally, 12 years after he was deposed by Tony, Felix gets an opportunity to exact retribution. By now the dirty-dealing Judas and his cohorts are politicians, looking to climb the governmental ladder. To further their ambitions, the politicos plan to see a Shakespeare production at Fletcher prison and (of course) stage a photo op.
So Felix decides to put on a prisoner version of The Tempest, complete with the story's "play within a play" scenario. During the traitors' visit to Fletcher, Tony and his pals think they've been nabbed by convicts during a prison riot, that one of their party has been killed, and so on. The visitors' experiences parallels that of the characters in the real Shakespeare play - and eventually they're confronted with their treachery towards Felix all those years ago.
While reading the book I learned a lot about updating a classic work; how plays are cast and staged; creating costumes; the nuts and bolts of putting on a production; stage names in the clink (LOL); and so on....all of which is very interesting. I loved that the prisoners were only permitted to use 'curse words' in the original play, and their cuss-filled conversations are hilarious. For example: scurvy awesome; what the pied ninny is this; you're a poxy communist; shove it, freckled whelp; and from one well-spoken convict.....poisonous poxy, what's it scurvy about. I also like the inventive rap songs the prisoners write for the production.
In an excellent addendum, the prisoners make up possible futures for the major characters in The Tempest....that is, what happens after the story ends. I often wonder about this kind of thing myself, so I was intrigued by the prisoners' speculations.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to Shakespeare fans, lovers of literature, and anyone else who wants to try something a little different.
If you're interested in knowing more about the Hogarth project, the website is here: http://hogarthshakespeare.com/
Rating: 4 stars