By Fiona Stewart
MA in Contemporary Literature student
I was delighted to see Margaret Atwood in conversation with Dr Liesl King at the York Theatre Royal. When asked about preparation for her novel Hag-Seed (2016), Atwood spoke about her research on Shakespeare and The Tempest, and how she enjoyed watching DVDs of the performance, in particular, Julie Taymore’s film with Helen Mirren as Prospera. Hag-Seed is an inventive re-telling of The Tempest which revisits the theme of revenge. The Prospero figure is the character Felix Phillips who is usurped by his cunning assistant, Tony. Whilst contemplating his revenge, Felix decides to teach drama in a local prison where he directs the inmates through Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth. Felix later decides to stage The Tempest which will draw Tony to meet his match.
Atwood spoke about the high value she places on the teaching of literature and drama in prisons, and from her research she was inspired by inmates’ enthusiasm for acting. One inmate, on release from prison, had been so enthralled by the experience of acting that he trained to teach Shakespeare in prisons. When asked about the many genres in which she writes, Atwood said that while she was at college in Canada, nobody said that you could not write in a particular way, and as a result, she has enjoyed a long career of writing novels, plays, poetry and critical essays.
A member of the audience asked why Canada has so many great women authors and Atwood responded by highlighting acclaimed author Gwethalyn Graham, who wrote Earth and High Heaven (1944), while also acknowledging renowned Canadian male authors. She additionally discussed the importance of indigenous figures as role models for women across Canadian culture.
Finally, Atwood spoke about our planet and acknowledged British nature writers, in particular, Richard Mabey. She emphasised that 40-60% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans which are now heavily polluted by industrial practices across the globe. A reduction in oxygen will impair all forms of life on earth. I thank Atwood for her contribution to the environmental debate and her relentless hard work in alerting people to our endangered earth.