Review: Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative that finds authors reinterpreting the Bard’s great works into new novels. Margaret Atwood takes on one of the ‘problem’ plays, The Tempest, and transplants the action into Canada where Felix Phillips has been newly fired from his role as Artistic Director of the Festival Theatre, deposed by his ambitious rival, Tony.

Felix was on the verge of producing his masterpiece, a vision of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that would feature the kinds of wonderful, wacky ideas that belong in regional theatre and act as a tribute to his dead daughter, Miranda. However, when it goes awry, he goes into seclusion, re-emerging to enact his revenge 12 years later as the teacher of a drama course in a local correctional facility. He’ll get to perform his Tempest as well as enact a Prospero-level revenge on Tony.

It’s not surprising that Atwood renders the play so inventively. She’s a maestro at spinning out a tale from an existing framework, whether it’s the institutionalised misogyny of The Handmaid’s Tale and its foundations in contemporary sexism, or the historical reconstruction of the alleged crimes of Grace Marks in Alias Grace. Here, she uses the basic structure of the play to frame Felix’s narrative, but it’s not a straight transfer; Felix’s Prospero-like character is forged in different circumstances with different tools to work with.

The beauty of Atwood’s book is that no prior knowledge of The Tempest is needed. Atwood interweaves the key plot points and themes via the discussion of the play that Felix wants to put on, not to mention his plan for revenge. Along the way, Atwood delights in dropping Shakespearean insults and nods to other plays where she can. Her winking humour comes through at all times, particularly in the character of Felix. He’s prickly, narcissistic, but also profoundly affected by the grief he feels for his dead daughter.

There’s also a glorious celebration of the power of the Bard through Felix’s correctional facility drama course. The inmates engage wholeheartedly with the text, offering their own interpretations of the characters they’re playing and the way in which certain scenes play out. When the final performance occurs, it’s a meta multimedia extravaganza that’s infected with wit and even more ties back to Shakespeare’s original work.

Most of all, Hag-Seed is a fun read, whether you’re a fan of Atwood, Shakespeare, or both. When it becomes clear how Atwood is going to recreate the play within the novel (and has the audacity to put another play in there) too, Felix’s tale becomes too compelling to put down. It’s smart, insightful, and a reminder of why Atwood is one of our finest writers.