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The I of the storm - 'Hag-Seed'

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Atwood novel an exploration of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

William Shakespeare is the literary GOAT. Not a particularly controversial take, to be sure, but one in which I strongly believe. The Bard is the best and no one will convince me otherwise.

That doesn't mean that I have no room in my heart for a little reinterpretation and/or reinvention, however. In fact, my favorite current literary experiment is the one undertaken by the folks at Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. Their ongoing series called Hogarth Shakespeare features a number of contemporary novelists reimagining Shakespeare's classic works.

The first three in the series are Jeanette Winterson's 'The Gap of Time,' based on 'The Winter's Tale'); Howard Jacobson's 'My Name is Shylock,' based on 'The Merchant of Venice'; and Anne Tyler's 'Vinegar Girl,' based on 'The Taming of the Shrew.'

The latest installment is 'Hag-Seed' (Hogarth, $25), Margaret Atwood's take on 'The Tempest.' It's a cunning and clever take, deconstructing the scholar-troubling play using the story of a unique production of the play itself. Atwood's compelling prose and keen intellect make for an ideal match to the complexities of Prospero, Ariel, Miranda and the rest.

Felix Phillips is an artist of the highest order, the artistic director of the Makeshewig Festival, a Canadian theater festival. His productions tend to be more challenging than commercial, but he leaves the tiresome nuts-and-bolts of organizational gladhanding to his associate Tony so that he might focus on the work. Unfortunately, Felix's trust is ill-founded; a quick coup ends with Tony at the top and Felix out on his ear.

Post-ouster, Felix wants little to do with the theater, but he soon finds himself drawn back into that world although in a very different way. Circumstances lead to Felix working in a prison under an assumed name, teaching theater to inmates and producing Shakespeare in a very different manner than he did in Makeshewig. The degree to which Felix finds the work fulfilling surprises even him.

But when an opportunity arises for Felix to exact revenge on those who once wronged him, he knows what he must do; he must convince his students to follow him on a journey into the Shakespeare with which his connects most powerfully. He shall play Prospero in his very own 'The Tempest.' With the help of friends both old and new, Felix needs to put on the show of his career; in many ways, his life depends on it.

'Hag-Seed' is perfectly in keeping with the aims of Hogarth Shakespeare, bringing forth the underlying themes of 'The Tempest' in multiple ways via the same narrative. The idea of prison is one with which Shakespeare has a complicated relationship; Atwood's take provides a fresh and unique look at just how complex that relationship might be. With prisoners both figurative and literal in abundance, we bear witness to the many traps and trappings inherent to the human condition.

Of course, the exploration of themes is all well and good, but with this book as with Shakespeare himself story is king. And Margaret Atwood knows how to tell a story, giving us a look at the world through the jaded eyes of an aging artist in her own inimitable way.

Hogarth Shakespeare is a phenomenal project, a literary experience of depth and grace, and Atwood is a wonderful fit. Her work as a poet has always influenced her prose; for a book like this, it's a match made in heaven. Atwood's marvelous gift for description is apparent in her phrasing, bringing forth rhythms that aren't iambic pentameter, but might as well be. Add to that an ability to create characters that are possessed of a great capacity for pathos, yet never come off as pathetic and it's no surprise that 'Hag-Seed' is a triumph of creative flourishes and compelling narrative.

'Hag-Seed' accomplishes something remarkable it looks at 'The Tempest' from the outside and from the inside simultaneously. That dual perspective filters through the singular and damaged prism of one lost man's attempts to find his way. Atwood brings together a deep understanding of the source material with her own vast storytelling skill to create a work that is beautifully composed, eminently readableand ultimately brilliant.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:33


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