As artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, Felix Phillips is known to push the envelope with his interpretations of Shakespeare, even if “the playgoers and even the patrons had grumbled from time to time.” As a longtime theatre nerd and volunteer usher at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, I had to laugh at the descriptions of each of controversial plays:
The almost-naked freely bleeding Lavinia in Titus was too upsettingly graphic, they’d whined; though, as Felix had pointed out, more than justified by the text. Why did Pericles have to be staged with spaceships and extraterrestrials instead of sailing ships and foreign countries, and why present the moon goddess Artemis with the head of a praying mantis? Even though—said Felix to the Board, in his own defense—it was totally fitting, if you thought deeply enough about it. And Hermoine’s return to life as a vampire in The Winter’s Tale: that had actually been booed. Felix had been delighted: What an effect! Who else had ever done it? Where there are boos, there’s life!
As a fan of off-beat interpretations of Shakespeare, I’d watch every single one of these, even if they did turn out to be ridiculous. And I like Felix’s attitude about the boos!
Margaret Atwood off-beat interpretation of Shakespeare finds Felix in preparation for what he hopes will be a ground-breaking production of The Tempest. It’s a labor of love; his daughter, named Miranda, has recently died, and he chose that name 3 years earlier because his love of her “kept him from sinking down into chaos” when her mother died in childbirth.
But Felix, like Prospero, has an Antonio to contend with. Tony runs the business side of the festival, and he’s the one who brings Tony the news that the Board has decided to let him go before he can bring his new triumph to the stage. So Felix takes himself into exile. Twelve years later, he finds a way out.
After years of living a solitary life, with no one but his daughter’s ghost to keep him company, Felix takes over a literature program at a local prison. He gets the inmates reading, discussing, and performing Shakespeare. (It actually sounds like a great program.) After his success with Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Richard III, circumstances lead Felix to decide that it’s time to bring his Tempest to life. And his Antonio will be there to see it.
So Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project includes an actual production of The Tempest. This is a clever way to handle the project without creating a story that’s inaccessible to people who don’t know the play. The structure of the novel allows for some explanation of the plot of the original so that readers will see the connections without having to read the summary at the back of the book. I saw The Tempest a little over two years ago, but it’s not a play I know well, so I was happy for the refresher.
I tend to enjoy Atwood’s realistic fiction more than her speculative work, so I was glad to see her writing in that mode again. There are bits of fantasy around the edges of the story, but this isn’t a fantasy in the way the play is. It’s a book about human feelings and how they play out in real life. On top that, this book is just good fun. It’s mostly fun, as a matter of fact. It’s not an exposé about the prison system or anything serious like that. The book is a joyful diversion that offers bits of wisdom about life, pretty much just like a Shakespearean comedy.