wed 29/05/2024

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - a red-hot classic for our times | reviews, news & interviews

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - a red-hot classic for our times

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - a red-hot classic for our times

Overwhelming power in Annilese Miskimmon's new production of Poul Ruders's opera

Kate Lindsey as OffredAll images by Catherine Ashmore

However familiar you are with The Handmaid’s Tale in Margaret Atwood’s novel or its TV adaptation, you might still be knocked sideways by the impact it makes as an opera. Poul Ruders’s music plunges us viscerally into its emotional world, where his ambitious adaptation, premiered in 2000 and first heard in the UK three years later, packs one hell of a punch, its intensity terrifying and relentless.

It was not an unqualified success back then, but times have changed, its chilling resonances in a world of Trump and the Taliban are only too clear and the TV series has given the story a new significance in contemporary culture.

This opera is also an adept choice for Annilese Miskimmon’s directorial debut at ENO, where she is artistic director. She and her all-female creative team for this new production have produced the best performance I’ve seen there in years. 

Ruders has done a certain amount of restructuring and rewriting, and there’s never a moment when his music does not match its dramatic purpose. Chords well up and surge in giant waves of pain, unison female voices sing imposed platitudes in plainchant and minimalist glimmers show the familiar ordinariness of the past; the soundworld is harsh, but never grimmer than Gilead itself. Paul Bentley’s libretto is sharply constructed and treats the novel with fidelity and respect, the one proviso being that there’s a lot of book to fit into two and three-quarter hours and some of the action is inevitably telescoped – some of the smaller roles are very small and we witness what must be the fastest Scrabble game ever played. Still the format makes its demands and it’s hard to imagine it being better done. Camille Cottin in 'The Handmaid's Tale'But for its framing device of a conference, centuries after Gilead has fallen – a spoken role carried out by the casting coup of the French actress Camille Cottin (pictured above) – the opera, like the book, is seen through the eyes of the handmaid, Offred. It’s a gigantic role, more than merely challenging, and the American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey gives what must be the performance of her life, not only coping with everything Ruders asks of her voice, but embodying Offred’s despair, humility, defiance and the spark of passion that stubbornly refuses to let Gilead extinguish it. Miskimmon has her marching purposefully off stage, only to return, seconds later, walking backwards in slow-motion mirror image with her handmaid colleague Ofglen; sometimes Lindsey’s simple turn of the head or glint of the eye conveys all of her pent-up fury and determination.

Miskimmon’s staging, though mainly framed by tall curtains on a railing, masterfully mixes stillness, slow-mo, repeated flashbacks to the kidnapping of Offred’s child and rapid-fire action, keeping things pacy and riveting. The set, by Annemarie Woods, goes for utmost simplicity, which is just as well because there is scant time to shunt furniture about. This Gilead scarcely needs elaborate design: it is all in the body language. Scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'The visual horrors of the story – from regular state-sanctioned rape to the grotesque ‘particicution’ where a male prisoner is thrown to a leonine circle of handmaids – are handled with real care for the audience and the performers alike (and there is an ‘intimacy coordinator’). Only very occasionally does this level of caution result in a disconnect in the storytelling: the ‘wall’ that Offred and the handmaids visit is shown as a kind of memorial centre, bearing photographs of the dead, but this seems an oddly tender move for Gilead: in the book the Wall is where bodies of the executed are left hanging as a lesson to others. 

The use of video projections, by Akhila Krishnan, is particularly striking, since you are never quite sure whether this is film or behind-the-curtain action. One of the opera’s most original and striking moments is a duet between Offred and her former self in the Time Before; it seems that the former self was pre-recorded by Lindsey, but this could easily be mistaken for live performance. 

Lindsey heads a cast that is wholly magnificent, with Emma Bell issuing terrifying power as Aunt Lydia, the handmaids’ controller, in coloratura vocal writing that is ferociously convoluted and unnatural – perfect to convey the perverted logic of her directives. Rhian Lois is heart-rending as Janine/Ofwarren, losing her mind step by step and, after her baby is taken from her, ending up as a loose-haired Ophelia crumbling flowers before being shot. Scene from The Handmaid's TaleThe radiant-voiced Pumeza Matshikiza is the rebellious Moira (pictured above with Lindsay) – another small role that punches above its weight, but one wishes there was more for her to do– and Susan Bickley delivers a splendid cameo as Offred’s old-world feminist mother. Ofglen, having been a minor character, becomes a major one when her role in the underground resistance catches up with her; Elin Pritchard brings her a touching integrity. A true and fabulous contralto voice is always a special find, and this is very much the case with Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife. The few men - Robert Hayward as The Controller, Frederick Ballantyne as Nick, John Findon as Luke and Alan Oke as the lascivious doctor – all make the most of their sporadic appearances. And in the end Offred’ five-year-old daughter and her blue rabbit still manage to steal the show (social media tells us that this adept little actress is the daughter of Rhian Lois).

The tightly written, red-hot musical canvas is magnificently controlled by Joana Carneiro, sparking top-notch orchestral playing. It seems tragic that an already short run of performances has had to lose two of them, after Covid hit. Here’s hoping for a rapid revival. Meanwhile, see it if you can. It's a magnificent and unforgettable achievement.


Hi... The libretto is by Paul Bentley, not Bradley.

Corrected this morning! Thank you. JD

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