Vengeance is mine says the dispossessed

A new Hogarth Shakespeare has hit the bookstalls. Margaret Atwood has taken on The Tempest and called her novel Hag-Seed.

atwoodTransferring the action to Canada, Ms Atwood admirably mirrors the text of the play with her own characters. So that Felix Phillips is summarily ousted from his position as Artistic Director of the Makeshewig Festival by Tony, to whom he has long delegated much of the administration of the whole enterprise. To add to the similarities, Felix has lost his wife and also his daughter, Miranda, to illness; the little girl to meningitis aged three, a matter for which he holds himself partly to blame because he was more fully occupied with his play at the time, than with her fever.

As the novel opens, Felix is about to prepare for a production of The Tempest for the festival, much of the mise-en-scene is ready, the actors prepared though not fully rehearsed and this is going to be the big one, to launch the career of young actors like Anne-Marie Greenland who will play Miranda, and to put the Festival absolutely on the map.

Imagine his dismay then: he is informed by Tony that the play is cut and he is no longer Artistic Director, voted off by the Board, his effects are in the car park and he is to be taken off the premises by security, where the now soaking wet boxes are dumped by his car. Just as he is leaving, Lonnie Gordon, the kindly Chairman of the Festival, hurries out with his costume and props for The Tempest – ring any bells?

Felix goes to ground, hiding out under an assumed name, then finally he applies as Mr Duke (his alter ego) for a job as a fill-in temporary assistant in the literary programme at a correctional facility. His interview, with Estelle who has influence in high places, takes a curious turn as she recognises him. But sworn to secrecy, because as he says he is rather over-qualified for the job, she hires him. But once in post he changes the curriculum and takes his people, every one of them a convicted criminal of one sort or another, into the world of Shakespeare. Initially this is met with some scepticism, but literacy increases and there is evidence of improvement all round, so Felix (Mr Duke) is left to his own devices.

But suddenly an opportunity arises to put on The Tempest in front of a group of visiting ministers, which includes his nemesis, Tony, and a few others complicit in his downfall.

His vengeance planned, he goes for broke…

I have said before that as a 400th anniversary tribute to William Shakespeare, the Hogarth Press series could hardly be bettered. Respected and serious modern novelists, asked to re-imagine Shakespeare for the 21st century – what could be more imaginative? In my view, so far, it has worked tremendously well. I have my favourites and do not pull any punches about that, I have a least favourite but fully admit to a failing in appreciation of that writer anyway. In any event, I strongly recommend all these novels, and more to come.

So far for me, the best are this one and Jeanette Winterson‘s take on The Winter’s Tale, followed by Anne Tyler‘s offering on The Taming of the Shrew and finally Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice. They all appear one way or another in posts on this blog. I urge you to look for them, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

On a complete different tack, I used to be a judge for The Koestler Prize, an initiative set up some time ago by Arthur Koestler to help prisoners with creative projects. Our group judged the literary offerings from the Youth Offending Institutes, Special Prisons and Secure Units. As a way of re-education and restorative therapy, this programme could hardly be challenged – the challenge lies in the heavily reduced funding for prisons in general, which means the cutting back in staff numbers and the heavy reduction of programmes like these. There is an annual exhibition of the works in many mediums lately shown on the lower ground floor of The Royal Festival Hall, generally in September – another thing you might look out for…

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