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An excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. To honour his legacy, publishers around the world have launched the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, a series of Bard-inspired novels by today's best writers. Here, The Globe and Mail presents an excerpt from the latest in the series, Hag-Seed – a retelling of The Tempest by Margaret Atwood.

1. SEASHORE

Monday, January 7, 2013.

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Felix brushes his teeth. Then he brushes his other teeth, the false ones, and slides them into his mouth. Despite the layer of pink adhesive he's applied, they don't fit very well; perhaps his mouth is shrinking. He smiles: the illusion of a smile. Pretense, fakery, but who's to know?

Once he would have called his dentist and made an appointment, and the luxurious faux-leather chair would have been his, the concerned face smelling of mint mouthwash, the skilled hands wielding gleaming instruments. Ah yes, I see the problem. No worries, we'll get that fixed for you. Like taking his car in for a tuneup. He might even have been graced with music on the earphones and a semi-knockout pill.

But he can't afford such professional adjustments now. His dental care is low-rent, so he's at the mercy of his unreliable teeth. Too bad, because that's all he needs for his upcoming finale: a denture meltdown. Our revelth now have ended. Theeth our actorth … Should that happen, his humiliation would be total; at the thought of it even his lungs blush. If the words are not perfect, the pitch exact, the modulation delicately adjusted, the spell fails. People start to shift in their seats, and cough, and go home at intermission. It's like death.

"Mi-my-mo-moo," he tells the toothpaste-speckled mirror over the kitchen sink. He lowers his eyebrows, juts out his chin. Then he grins: the grin of a cornered chimpanzee, part anger, part threat, part dejection.

How he has fallen. How deflated. How reduced. Cobbling together this bare existence, living in a hovel, ignored in a forgotten backwater; whereas Tony, that self-promoting, posturing little shit, gallivants about with the grandees, and swills champagne, and gobbles caviar and larks' tongues and suckling pigs, and attends galas, and basks in the adoration of his entourage, his flunkies, his toadies … Once the toadies of Felix.

It rankles. It festers. It brews vengefulness. If only … Enough. Shoulders straight, he orders his gray reflection. Suck it up. He knows without looking that he's developing a paunch. Maybe he should get a truss.

Never mind! Reef in the stomach! There's work to be done, there are plots to be plotted, there are scams to be scammed, there are villains to be misled! Tip of the tongue, top of the teeth. Testing the tempestuous teapot. She sells seashells by the seashore.

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There. Not a syllable fluffed.

He can still do it. He'll pull it off, despite all obstacles. Charm the pants off them at first, not that he'd relish the resulting sight. Wow them with wonder, as he says to his actors. Let's make magic! And let's shove it down the throat of that devious, twisted bastard, Tony.

2. HIGH CHARMS

That devious, twisted bastard, Tony, is Felix's own fault. Or mostly his fault. Over the past twelve years, he's often blamed himself. He gave Tony too much scope, he didn't supervise, he didn't look over Tony's nattily suited, padded, pinstriped shoulder. He didn't pick up on the clues, as anyone with half a brain and two ears might have done. Worse: he'd trusted the evil-hearted, social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker. He'd fallen for the act: Let me do this chore for you, delegate that, send me instead. What a fool he'd been.

His only excuse was that he'd been distracted by grief at that time. He'd recently lost his only child, and in such a terrible way. If only he had, if only he hadn't, if only he'd been aware … No, too painful still. Don't think about it, he tells himself while doing up the buttons of his shirt. Hold it far back. Pretend it was only a movie.

Even if that not-to-be-thought-about event hadn't occurred, he'd most likely still have been ambushed. He'd fallen into the habit of letting Tony run the mundane end of the show, because, after all, Felix was the Artistic Director, as Tony kept reminding him, and he was at the height of his powers, or so they kept saying in the reviews; therefore he ought to concern himself with higher aims.

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And he did concern himself with higher aims. To create the lushest, the most beautiful, the most awe-inspiring, the most inventive, the most numinous theatrical experiences ever. To raise the bar as high as the moon. To forge from every production an experience no one attending it would ever forget. To evoke the collective indrawn breath, the collective sigh; to have the audience leave, after the performance, staggering a little as if drunk. To make the Makeshiweg Festival the standard against which all lesser theatre festivals would be measured.

These were no mean goals.

To accomplish them, Felix had pulled together the ablest backup teams he could cajole. He'd hired the best, he'd inspired the best. Or the best he could afford. He'd handpicked the technical gnomes and gremlins, the lighting designers, the sound technicians. He'd headhunted the most admired scenery and costume designers of his day, the ones he could persuade. All of them had to be top of the line, and beyond. If possible.

So he'd needed money.

Finding the money had been Tony's thing. A lesser thing: the money was only a means to an end, the end being transcendence: that had been understood by both of them. Felix the cloud-riding enchanter, Tony the earth-based factotum and gold-grubber. It had seemed an appropriate division of functions, considering their respective talents. As Tony himself had put it, each of them should do what he was good at.

Idiot, Felix berates himself. He'd understood nothing.

As for the height of his powers, the height is always ominous. From the height, there's nowhere to go but down.

Tony had been all too eager to liberate Felix from the rituals Felix hated, such as the attending of cocktail functions and the buttering-up of sponsors and patrons, and the hobnobbing with the Board, and the facilitating of grants from the various levels of government, and the writing of effective reports. That way – said Tony – Felix could devote himself to the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he had made such genius use.

And his directing, of course. Felix had always built in one or two plays a season for himself to direct. Once in a while he would even take the central part, if it was something he'd felt drawn to. Julius Caesar. The tartan king. Lear. Titus Andronicus. Triumphs for him, every one of those roles! And every one of his productions! Or triumphs with the critics, though the playgoers and even the patrons had grumbled from time to time. 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.

Excerpted from Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 2016 O.W. Toad Ltd. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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