Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

First published by Morning Star Tuesday 18th October 2016

Margaret Atwood’s art enchants

As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series retelling the Bard’s classics, Margaret Atwood has brought her own magical art to The Tempest. Hag-Seed follows a theatre director developing and delivering a version of the play in a prison theatre program, while he himself is caught within a Tempest-like reality.

There are dramas within dramas, and characters consumed by love and hate whilst caught wrestling between fantasy and reality. And when it comes to the staging, Atwood like Shakespeare, does just enough to keep the mind focussed on the myriad possibilities of human relations, as they play out against an uncluttered backdrop of a world. In short, for me Hag-Seed is Shakespearian in both achievement and form.

In addition to retelling Prospero’s story in a modern context, and the original play being dramatised by the prison players, the reader also has the benefit of an analysis of the original play as part of the prisoner’s study program. In less accomplished hands this symphony of activities would fail horribly. However, in my opinion Atwood does quite the reverse. Hag-Seed is dizzying, enchanting, endearing and empowering. Seeing The Tempest through the cast of characters Atwood creates and the author’s own overarching narrative, this book has given the original play new life for me.

The nonchalant way Atwood keeps disarming the reader maintains a pace to the narrative that is welcoming. It builds delicately layer upon layer in a clear linear narrative, with its characters forming and developing in depth where needed, and superficially where not. The novel talks of what it means to be human and the societies we create, about the all-consuming obsessiveness of love and hatred, the inhumanities made possible in the pursuit of revenge and the cruelty of exploitation. It even takes the time to imagine another world, a world without oppression.

I am not a great believer in reworking or reinterpreting anyone else’s writing. If asked three weeks ago if I thought The Tempest needed reworking, I would have said no. Now I am not so sure. As Prospero says in Shakespeare’s epilogue that it is our indulgence that sets him free, so should it be for Hag-Seed. Margaret Atwood’s art did enchant me.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is published by Penguin Random House, price £16.99.