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The Handmaid’s Tale

by on 9 April 2022

Warped Magnificence

The Handmaid’s Tale

by Poul Ruders, libretto by Paul Bentley from the novel by Margaret Attwood 

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 14th April

Review by Mark Aspen

What a remarkably prescient author Canadian novelist Margaret Attwood is!  When she published her work of satirical speculative fiction in 1985, neither the Taliban nor ISIS existed.   Yet The Handmaid’s Tale gives an uncannily accurate picture of these brutally repressive regimes and how they have developed during the 21st Century, with the warped sense of religious interpretation they represent.    The “shalt nots” particularly repress women and extend to denying women and girls an education; they are not allowed to learn to read and write.   They are denied the right to work or possess property.  The position of women is one of total subservience.  

Attwood, however, poses a “what if” in North America, and the warped sense of religious interpretation transfers to a Judeo-Christian setting.  Here the perverted interpretations include that of Genesis Ch 30, which treats on Jacob’s proprietorial use of women.  Certainly, Jacob’s bigamy and the taking of his wives’ servants as concubines does not accord with 21st Century mores.   The background is that, following a series of accidents at nuclear power stations, and the social unrest that follows, a bloody coup usurps the United States by an extreme theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.   Moreover, there is a population crisis, in that the majority of women, and men too although this possibility is not recognised by the Gilead state, have become infertile due to radiation.  Women in second marriages, all of which have been declared void, or with unmarried partners are abducted by the state to be sent to re-education centres, run by harshly disciplinarian “Aunts”.   They are intended as “Handmaids” for the “Commanders,” the ruling class of men.  They are to be used as surrogate mothers to bear children for the infertile Commanders’ Wives.   “The Ceremony” is a ritual sexual act. The Wife has to invite the Handmaid to lie back between her legs while the Commander has sex with the Handmaid.   This is a misinterpretation of Genesis 30, in which the barren Rachel says to her husband Jacob, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may have children by her”.  In fact “bear upon my knees” is a classical Hebrew idiom meaning to adopt a child.

Poul Ruders’ opera follows the harrowing story of Our Handmaid, who becomes Offred after she is assigned to the high ranking Commander, his first name being Frederick.  The story is told via the framing device of a lecture given at an international conference in the 22nd Century by a Cambridge history academic Professor Pieixoto, who discovers a long-forgotten stash of audio tapes made by Offred.  Renowned French film and TV actress Camille Cottin as Pieixoto appeared a little uncomfortable on stage in this speaking part, in spite of some fine acting, in a back-story exposition that seemed rather redundant.   However, it did provide some clues for people, like this critic, who has not read Attwood’s novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale is directed by ENO’s new Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon, whose vision of this bleak setting is efficiently executed by her all-female creative team.  Designer Annemarie Woods’ economical set provides an open stage, and there is lots of stylised movement choreographed in the space, which is surrounded by plain grey drapes.  The prescribed social hierarchy in Gilead is reflected in the colour-coding of the women’s costumes, Virgin Mary blue for the Wives, grey for the Aunts, red for the Handmaids, green for the Marthas, that is domestic servants, and so on.  However, there is one structural feature in Woods’ set, The Wall, an imposing edifice with photographs of those who have been executed for transgressing the laws of Gilead.  In the book, their corpses are exposed on The Wall, rather like a Traitors’ Gate.

Video Designer, Akhila Krishnan conveys the longing for the Other Time, that is time before Gilead, with piercing pathos, by means of crackly black and white back-projection on a gauze, depicting Offred’s previous life with her husband Luke and their young daughter. 

The plot does not consistently develop chronologically, neither is there unity of space.  There is more a dipping into themes and plenty of repetition for emphasis or effect.  Recurring phrases become drilled into the listener, such as the Handmaids’ mantra, “Blessed be the fruit”.  There are also recurring flashbacks, particularly to the kidnapping of Offred’s young daughter and the banishment of her husband at the hands, or rather the automatic rifles, of the omnipresent menacing guards.  There is also much stylised movement, including slo-mo, some of which tends to be predictive.  Whenever one of the Handmaids walks backwards we know that something awful is about to happen.

Paule Constable’s lighting design lifts the staging.  It is interactive, following the both the plot and the score, animating the dramatic nature of both.

The most dramatic of all, however, and often melodramatic, is Poul Ruders’ music.  Always quivering with tension, it is sometimes atonal, sometimes lyrical.  There is the chanting of the novice Handmaids in beautiful plainsong; a bell tolls; or there are overpowering crescendos.  Motifs reappear.  In particular, John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace appears throughout, often incongruously, almost blasphemously.  It is gradually distorted to show the degeneracy of the Gilead state.   Ruders’ style is largely minimalistic and smacks of Alban Berg or possibly his mentor Schönberg.     Joana Carneiro conducts an ebullient ENO Orchestra, performing at its wonted high standard.  Equally indispensable to the musical success of this work is the unparalleled ENO Chorus, its female voices singing with concentrated conviction.

Ruders asks a lot from singers, pushing them to the limits of their registers with remarkably demanding phrasing.  American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, fresh from the Met, makes her ENO debut in the leading role of Offred in an astounding performance.   She’s almost always on stage.  Indeed originally scored for two singers as Offred past and present, the roles have been combined.  At one point she ever has a duet between Offred and her former self, enacted behind the gauze, in the Time Before.   Presumably Lindsey has pre-recorded Offred past.  Her acting of the Offred’s multiple tribulations is exemplary, her character’s mix of despair versus defiance, and deference versus determination.   

Equally astounding is Emma Bell, who made an impressive Sieglinde in ENO’s The Valkyrie last autumn, with vocal acrobatics as the dominating Aunt Lydia, the contortions of her coloratura soprano underlining the sadistic demands of the culture Lydia serves.

Soprano Rhian Lois portrays the fate of Janine, a one-time waitress who becomes Ofwarren, with painful accuracy, her gradual mental breakdown, following the removal of her baby, to forlorn wild-eyed confusion crushing flowers (referencing Ophelia?) as she is taken to summary execution. 

Opera stalwart, Robert Hayward, whom we last saw pre-Covid with Rhian Lois and Elin Pritchard in Verdi’s Falstaff at The Grange Festival, is an imposing figure as The Commander.  Hayward lucidly interprets the character’s uncertainties and weaknesses, in spite of his being a high-ranking official.  Hayward’s rich bass-baritone is a treat.  

Equally rich voiced is contralto Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, The Commander’s wife, her singing full and fluid.   She portrays the humiliation and disgust felt by this one-time celebrity gospel singer.

There is a certain gutsiness with some of the rebellious Handmaids.  Ofglen is secretly in an underground resistance movement and Moira tries to physical escape the prison of the re-education centre, which risks a beating with frayed wire cables.   Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard plays Ofglen as a woman with both courage and sympathy, while South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza (Fox in ENO’s recent The Cunning Little Vixen) imbues Moira with fearlessness and fortitude.

As Offred’s mother, mezzo Susan Bickley has a tough cameo role as a feminist in a state where feminism is eradicated.  American tenor Frederick Ballantyne is charming as Nick, the chauffeur, who impregnates Offred, and experienced tenor Alan Oke plays the lustful doctor, who doesn’t. 

Diminutive, but super-confident Elspeth MacDonald, the four-year old daughter of Rhian Lois, played Offred’s missing child with such aplomb that she drew as much applause at the curtain call as the principals.

There are many scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale that require great care to pull off without awkwardness or prurience.  In this production only some are successful.  The lynching of political prisoner by the women on the lie that he is a rapist, and the scene in Jezebel’s, a speakeasy brothel for the corrupt elite, both work.  “The Ceremony”, the monthly impregnation ritual, a joyless, soulless and ironically sexless sex-act, awkwardly does.  However, the labour ward scene in which all and sundry witness Ofglen’s giving birth, is undermined by the use of flipchart with juvenile drawings.  The prayer automat, depicted by childish drawings, where “prayers” can be bought for slot-machine tokens comes across as rather fatuous.   Maybe the intention to show the insubstantial nature of the regime.  The llibretto has some of these elements.  The cod-Latin joke phrase comes over as puerile.  Many decades ago, in school Latin, we were presenting “nollite te illegitimus carborundum” as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.   Come on!

Miskimmon’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful piece, with potent music, innovative vocalisations beautifully sung, and arresting imagery.    A magnificent coda, the enigmatic ending with Offred climbing The Wall through the mist, is brightly back-lit, reminiscent of Victorian in memorium cards.  Is this her end or does she struggle towards a new future?  Perhaps the presence of Offred’s child in the foreground points the way.

Mark Aspen, April 2022

Photography by Catherine Ashmore

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