I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite. I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless it’s my position and I’m sticking with it. I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either. Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.
Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from. In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.
Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge. However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes. Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge. Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall. But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest? After all, there are fairies!
Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher. The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself. The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text? He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb. I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms. It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.
Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself. Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg. Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?
(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed? The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte. Were takings falling? Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea? I simply ask the question.)
Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society. They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations. An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it. My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.