2016, Hogarth Press
Like every Artistic Director milling around the theatre world, Felix Phillips has a dream: to present the most cutting-edge Shakespearean productions any small town has ever seen. To “raise the bar as high as the moon.”
Felix builds a dynasty. The festival becomes an annual local highlight. A cottage industry forms. Feeling the height of his powers, Felix believes himself indispensable.
The only problem: Felix’s productions border on ridiculous. In his new interpretation of The Tempest he’ll have a quadriplegic Caliban riding around on a skateboard. Fairies are re-imagined as aliens and vampires. What Felix believes his greatest triumph is in reality fodder for those looking to fill his shoes.
And here we see Atwood’s clever tack; each character delivered by the author replicates that of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Soon, like Prospero himself, Felix finds himself targeted by Tony & Sal, ambitious local politicians who see the arts festival as a springboard to their own careers.
Hag-Seed is part of Random House’s Hogarth project, reintroducing Shakespeare to mainstream literature. Atwood’s modern retelling of The Tempest is complete and its cast amazingly appealing.
Atwood opens her story by putting us in the thick of the Felix’s tempest. Like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, it’s still a very effective tool, baiting the audience early on with the heart of the action and a glimpse of the story’s conclusion. That moment is so intriguing, we’ll ride it out chapter after chapter to see it come to fruition.
Atwood, best known for her dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, draws out Felix quickly, disgraced and dismissed from the festival, finding exile in a small hovel built by early pioneers. There, haunted by the ghost of his late daughter, he installs a few modern refinements: electricity and the internet. Soon he spies opportunity; a local men’s prison is assembling a theatrical troupe to introduce the creative arts, as performed by fellow inmates. Ah yes, The Tempest is again in his grasp.
The correctional facility is a setting Felix can relate to. The director of the program knows who he was and conspires to keep his former identity a secret. Felix makes good on his promise; in exchange for a life much less glamorous Felix begins his work with the inmates in search of redemption – and his ultimate revenge. Only in a book like Atwood’s will you find hardened criminals replacing blockhouse profanity with Shakespearean dialect: Scurvy. Pied ninny. Hag Seed.
Felix is hatching an elaborate plot to ensnare Tony & Sal, neutralize their careers, and restore his previous glory. But now, with his greatest achievement – his Tempest triumphantly staged, he’s free to choose: move on, or remain a prisoner of hate.
2016, Hogarth Press
Random House, 301 pgs.