If you feel a need to have the story of Shakespeare’s Tempest retold then this, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [London: Hogarth 2016] is the way to do it. This is no mere pastiche. Reflecting Atwood’s seemingly effortless skill as a writer, she takes the themes of the play and creates a new, but somewhat less ‘magical’, island.
The door unlocks and he walks into the warmth, and that unique smell. Unfresh paint, faint mildew, unloved food eaten in boredom, and the smell of dejection, the shoulders slumping down, the head bowed, the body caving in upon itself. A meagre smell. Onion farts. Cold naked feet, damp towels, motherless years. The smell of misery, lying over everyone like an enchantment. But for brief moments he knows he can unbind that spell.
This ‘island’ is a correctional institution, a prison to you and me, in the middle of Canada where an embittered former king-pin, once the artistic director of a provincial theatre, plots his revenge against those who unjustly deposed him. He is not there as a prisoner but as a visiting teacher. Biding his time, he builds a reputation and a rapport with the inmates, the island’s inhabitants, who voluntarily form the team of actors and stage crew of his annual Shakespeare productions. Then his moment comes and, through the medium of the theatre, he magics his very successful revenge.
A valuable by-product of the story is that, as the cast, crew and director pull together their version of The Tempest out of their collective imagination and his guiding genius, the reader learns a great deal about the work of creating a theatrical spectacle and, not to be ignored, a good deal about the thematic strands of the original play. Their director and teacher sets them research tasks which add to their appreciation of the relevance of the play to contemporary life.
Tension rises as the climax approaches and the moment of revenge is achieved to the director’s entire satisfaction. Just possibly, let me put it not higher than that, not to the reader’s total satisfaction but, for a writer as good as Atwood one can suspend one’s disbelief and enjoy the whole story tremendously.