|4.5 stars out of 5|
The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.
In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.
I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing and her sense of humour. I also really enjoy Shakespeare’s works—in fact, I’m working on a project of seeing all 37 of his plays performed. So this modern retelling of The Tempest was right up my alley.
Felix (Atwood’s Propero) is reduced from the avant-garde theatre director of the Makeshiweg Festival to an older guy living in a hovel in the countryside. Maybe not quite as dramatic as being a deposed Duke, but these changes never feel good. Felix takes a number of years to come to terms with the loss of the job that he had derived most of his identity from, tacked on to earlier tragedies which deprived him of his wife and daughter, Miranda. Eventually, we see him take his talents to a correctional facility to teach literacy and theatre arts to prisoners. [Atwood seems to be using some of her research from The Heart Goes Last and using a prison setting again]. Felix is surprised to find that he enjoys the work and that the inmates seem to benefit from it too.
And then the opportunity for revenge presents itself! As I knew it had to, to mirror the original work. I also was aware that The Tempest isn’t the most logical or sensible of plot lines—there’s a lot of magic and mayhem. The revenge plot in Atwood’s version is also highly unlikely—that’s the main reason for my deduction of half a star from my rating, but I’m dithering about whether that’s even fair, given the unlikelihood of the events in the original. But somehow, Atwood makes it work quite well, getting everyone appropriately punished, restored, and/or married, just as Shakespeare did.
Bonus points for Felix only allowing his students to swear in Shakespearean form—they must scour the play for the swear words and use only those while in the class space! [I notice that Atwood lists a Shakespearean insult generator as a source in her bibliography]. And for all the ways that Felix makes The Tempest more palatable to the men with useful reinterpretations.
For those who are interested in seeing the prison system from the inside, I would recommend Stephen Reid’s brutally beautiful memoir A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, which was also in Atwood’s bibliography.