When I first learned that Margaret Atwood – one of my all-time favourite authors – had rewritten Shakespeare’s The Tempest as part of the Hogarth series, I was fairly confident that I’d love this book: Atwood and Shakespeare are a formidable duo. And I wasn’t disappointed. Atwood has created a compelling, riveting version of a familiar story of enchantment, revenge and second chances. With references to Facebook and the Disney princesses, this is definitely a modern version of Shakespeare’s classic.
The story opens with Felix, the modern Prospero, seeking revenge on his nemesis, Tony, for a treacherous event that happened 12 years earlier. Then, Felix was the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, and, according to the reviews, was “at the height of his powers”. But his colleague Tony wrestled his way into the top spot, just as Felix was about to stage his own Tempest – a production that should have cemented his artistic reputation, and also provided an emotional outlet for his grief at losing his beloved daughter, 3-year-old Miranda. But it wasn’t to be.
So, for 12 years, Felix plots his revenge, and the moment finally arrives. He’s been working with a group of inmates at the local prison, directing Shakespeare’s plays as part of a literacy program. The inmates took some convincing over The Tempest – a magician and a fairy on an island didn’t have as much appeal as some of the blood & guts of the Shakespearean tragedies and histories. But the plan comes together, giving Felix the chance to trap the traitors who destroyed him, as he attempts to seek retribution and reinstate himself as the rightful artistic director.
Along the way, there is much to admire. Felix is a very likeable character, and you’ll find yourself hoping things work out for him in the end. There are many humorous moments too, such as when Felix is shopping in a ladies’ swimwear boutique for a blue swimming cap, as part of a costume: “For your wife?” says the woman, smiling. “Going on a cruise?” Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it. “Yes, he says. “In March, to the Caribbean”.
And one of my favourite parts of the book comes towards the end, when the prisoners devise their own plausible accounts of ‘what might have been’ for their respective characters, once Shakespeare’s version had ended.
Finally, here are my recommendations: firstly, if you’re a lover of Shakespeare, like me, and are familiar with The Tempest, then you’ll love this book. Secondly, if you have a child studying Shakespeare, then I’d strongly suggest they pick up a copy; and lastly, if you’re new to Shakespeare, this is a great place to start. Here’s a story that’s easy to read, with plenty of humour, and Felix himself will be your teacher: you’ll learn along with the prisoners in his literacy class, as he explains the plot and themes of the play. And as for me, I’ll be making my way through the rest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – with my much-loved King Lear top of the list.