Review by New York Times Review
SOME YEARS AGO, the publishing company Hogarth announced a fascinating initiative: a series of novels based on Shakespeare's most famous works. To date, eight novelists have signed on to reinterpret eight plays. In "Hag-Seed," the fourth in the series, Margaret Atwood has taken on "The Tempest." The setting is present-day Canada, and her Prospero is Felix, artistic director of an Ontario theater festival. In the original play, Prospero was deposed as duke of Milan by his conniving brother, Antonio. In Atwood's version, the Antonio character is Tony, Felix's festival partner, who handles operational matters while Felix immerses himself in staging ever-wilder productions of the kind that typically make small-town boards of directors a little nervous. His "Pericles" involves extraterrestrials. He stages "Macbeth" with chain saws. Felix, like Prospero, is a widowed father. But in "Hag-Seed," the child too is lost, when Felix's daughter, Miranda, dies suddenly at the age of 3. Immediately following the funeral, Felix plunges himself into a new production of "The Tempest." It will be his edgiest and most ambitious production yet, and he himself will play Prospero. He'll resurrect his lost Miranda on the stage. But before the play opens, Tony strikes. With the approval of his handpicked board of directors and his friend Sal in the Ministry of Canadian Heritage - a branch of the Canadian government that, among other things, finances theater festivals - Tony takes over as artistic director and has Felix escorted out by security. Given Sal's position, it goes without saying that Felix won't be able to start his own festival somewhere else. He rents a run-down cottage outside of town and settles into brooding exile. In the fourth act of "The Tempest," Prospero summons a crowd of spirits to entertain his daughter and her fiancé. Nymphs and goddesses assemble, but the revelry's hardly begun when Prospero's mood changes abruptly. He dismisses the spirits in an eerie bit of stage direction - "to a strange, hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish" - and explains to his puzzled soon-to-be son-in-law that "these our actors ... were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air." In Atwood's unsettling reinterpretation, Miranda is a spirit too, melting in and out of thin air in her father's cottage. While the lost kingdom in "Hag-Seed" might seem comparatively trivial, a theater festival versus the city of Milan, the festival was all Felix had, and the lost daughter lends a layer of anguish absent from the play. As years pass in solitude and Felix lives off his savings and retirement package, obsessed with revenge, he likes to imagine he's not alone. When he realizes he can actually hear his daughter's voice, he decides he's taken solitude too far and finds employment teaching literacy at the local prison. In the class, which quickly becomes wildly popular, the inmates study and perform Shakespeare. Felix finds pleasure in engaging with the outside world again, although it doesn't make Miranda any less real. He's drawn to Estelle, the professor who supervises the program, but doesn't act on his attraction because "he has a dependent child, and those duties come first." His relationship with reality is uncertain. When he's not caring for his ghostly daughter, he obsessively tracks his enemies across the ocean of the internet. Tony joins Sal in the political realm and is appointed to the federal cabinet. Twelve years after Miranda's death and Felix's dismissal from the festival, Estelle - the personification of the "auspicious star" that delivers Prospero's enemies to the island - asks him to lunch to deliver some news: The literacy program is on the fiscal chopping block, but she's pulled some strings and arranged for two cabinet ministers to visit and watch a performance, mostly for the photo op. The ministers are Sal and Tony. Felix's enemies will be delivered to him in the penitentiary. Is this all a little too convenient? Of course it is, but in fairness, there's an inevitable problem of translation inherent to the entire Hogarth Shakespeare project: How to create a credible contemporary novel from a work written four centuries ago for the stage? It's perhaps more straightforward in the case of the tragedies - there have been various novelistic interpretations of "King Lear" over the years - but how to handle Shakespeare's more fantastical offerings, the plays with stage directions like Enter certain Nymphs (from "The Tempest") or Enter Time, the chorus (from "The Winter's Tale")? In "The Gap of Time," her Hogarth reinterpretation of "The Winter's Tale," Jeanette Winterson opted to address the work's wilder elements by means of a video game, wherein time becomes a player. In "Hag-Seed," Atwood opts for, well, the play itself. When he learns that his enemies will be delivered into his hands, Felix decides to stage an unusually interactive performance of "The Tempest" in the prison. In some ways, staging the play at the prison is an elegant choice: Prospero's island is both prison and theater, and the play-within-a-play was of course a favorite device of Shakespeare's, while the novel-within-a-novel has in the past been used by Atwood to spectacular effect. But for the same reasons, the decision to stage "The Tempest" within "Hag-Seed" can be read as something of a failure of imagination on Atwood's part. It also marks an unfortunate transition. The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that's utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humor, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original's back story falls neatly into place. But the prison production of "The Tempest" leads to some of the book's clunkiest elements. At least some of the prisoners are in on Felix's plot. But to break the enchantment for a moment: These are inmates in a medium-security prison, who are being asked to menace two federal ministers. They've been told the literacy program is in peril, but this alone can't explain why they'd risk longer sentences, deferred parole or transfer to maximum security for such a harebrained scheme. Estelle's implied knowledge of the plot - "Think of me as lubricant.... I'll make things run smoothly, guaranteed" - is no more plausible, however deeply she cares about prison literacy. There is an odd sense at times that everyone but the reader is under the wizard's spell. This may be the point - after all, the characters of "The Tempest" are under Prospero's spell; the audience is not - but it does seem like a missed opportunity. Does Estelle's status as the auspicious star mean she has to be so thinly drawn as a character, her motivations and actions so inscrutable? In fact, the only truly developed character in "Hag-Seed" is Felix. Why, he wonders at one point, did he ever think himself capable of playing Prospero? "So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving?" Felix, too, is all of these things, and it's in the instability and complexity of his character that the book takes its darkest, most interesting turns. Felix both believes and doesn't believe that he lives with his ghostly daughter. Sometimes he's sincere, but sometimes he's clearly acting, particularly when he's with Estelle. When he activates his plot and traps his enemies in a psychedelic hell of an interactive theater experience, he believes his revenge is justified. But in at least one aspect, convincing an adversary his son has died, the viciousness is magnified exponentially by the fact that Felix knows what it's like to lose a child. "Hag-Seed" is at its eerie, enchanting best when Atwood dwells on Felix's relationship with his lost daughter. Is Miranda really there in the cottage, or not? What does it mean to be real, to be there, in the context of a play populated by spirits? He looks forward to seeing her in the evenings, when he returns to his cottage after rehearsals: "At first he thinks she isn't there, and his heart plummets. Then he detects her: She's over by their table, in the gathering shadows. She's waiting by the chess set, ready to resume their lesson." In "The Tempest," Miranda is trapped as surely as Ariel and Caliban. By the end of "Hag-Seed," it's begun to dawn on Felix that if Ariel longs to be released to the elements, perhaps the lost girl in his cottage longs for the same. EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL is the author, most recently, of "Station Eleven."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 20, 2016]
Review by Booklist Review
Atwood (The Heart Goes Last, 2015) presents a bravura hall-of-mirrors contribution to the delectable Hogarth Shakespeare project in which novelists reimagine Shakespeare's plays. Felix, the famously over-the-top artistic director of a prestigious Canadian theater festival, is forced out by his conspiring assistant just as he's about to produce The Tempest, which he hoped would help him endure his grief over the death of his young daughter, Miranda. Instead this would-be Prospero exiles himself in the countryside in a veritable hovel for 12 lunatic years, sustained by an avidly imagined spirit daughter and dreams of revenge. A teaching position at a prison breaks the spell. As he channels his theatrical genius into inspiring inmates to create wily, streetwise versions of Shakespeare, he slowly steers them toward The Tempest as part of an audacious plan to finally secure his own personal justice. Atwood positively frolics in this rambunctiously plotted and detailed enactment of how relevant Shakespeare can be for a talented troupe behind bars. Supremely sagacious, funny, compassionate, and caustic, Atwood presents a reverberating play-within-a-play within a novel.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2016 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
In The Tempest, Prospero is not just exiled king, magician, and father, he's an impresario staging multiple shows: the storm that strands his enemies on the island; his pretended disdain for Ferdinand, whom he intends for his daughter, Miranda; the play within the play; and, some critics argue, the play itself. In this, the fourth Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation, Atwood underscores these elements by making her Prospero a prominent theater festival director. After being done out of his job by a scheming underling, Felix goes off-grid, teaching literacy and theater to prisoners and grieving a lost daughter. When he learns that the man who took his job, now a political bigwig, will attend the next production, he sees his chance: in this Tempest, it won't just be Prospero who gets revenge. Former diva Felix is a sly and inventive director and teacher who listens to his cast's input, and his efforts to shape the play and his plot make for compelling reading. If, at the end, things tie up a little too neatly, the same might be said of the original, and Atwood's canny remix offers multiple pleasures: seeing the inmates' takes on their characters, watching Felix make use of the limited resources the prison affords (legal and less so), and marveling at the ways she changes, updates, and parallels the play's magic, grief, vengeance, and showmanship. 125,000-copy announced first printing. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Despite its title, this novelization of The Tempest explores the perspective not of Caliban, the enslaved witchs son, but of Prospero, his magician master.The latest in The Hogarth Press series of Shakespeare retellings is Atwood's (The Heart Goes Last, 2015, etc.) take on tyranny, betrayal, and art. In dystopias such as The Handmaids Tale (1985), the feminist master of literary science fiction explored the fate of the oppressed, but here she focuses instead on the power of an artist to reimagine his fate. Her Prospero, the actor/impresario Felix Phillips, has spent too many years ignoring office politics so he can concentrate on the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use. As a result, hes been ousted as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his scheming second-in-command, Tony Price (Antonio), and the Chair of the Board, Lonnie Gordon (Gonzalo). Fleeing the scene of his betrayal, Felix changes his name to Mr. Duke and finds refuge in the Literacy Through Literature program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, a job he agrees to take only if hes allowed to direct the inmates in Shakespeare plays. There he plots revenge, which unfolds when Tony, now Minister of Heritage in the Canadian government, along with Lonnie and assorted other dignitaries, makes a photo-op visit to see Felixs production ofwhat else?The Tempest. Once Felix has his enemies isolated in his dominion, he directs his spritesthe inmate actorsto bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery. The plots self-referential layers recall Prosperos famous air, thin air speech about actors. But despite this clever construction and a few genuinely moving moments involving Felixs dead daughter, Miranda, who died of meningitis as a toddler and whose spirit hovers through the story Ariel-fashion, the bulk of the novel can feel like spending some 300 pages in a high school English class. The inmate-actors seem more like puppets than people; oddly, the most forgettable is the eponymous Caliban-counterpart. Deliberate and carefully built, this novel rarely pulls off true theaters magic of transforming glitter confetti into fairy dust. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.