Monday 11 April 2022

The Handmaid's Tale: Poul Ruders operatic version of Margaret Atwood's dystopic tale returns in a stark new production with an astonishing performance from Kate Lindsey in the title role

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale; Kate Lindsey, Emma Bell, Camille Cottin, Robert Hayward, Pumeza Matshikiza, Rhian Lois, Elin Pritchard, Frederick Ballentine, Avery Amereau, director Annilese Miskimmon, conductor Joana Carneiro; English National Opera at London Coliseum
Friday 8 April 2022, (★★★★) 

Poul Ruders' opera The Handmaid's Tale is over 20 years old and is based on a book by Margaret Atwood published in 1986, yet the story it tells is remarkably prescient and, perhaps, even more scarily relevant -today than it seemed in 2000 or 1986. The opera debuted, in Danish translation, at Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen in 2000, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. And English National Opera gave the work's premiere in English (the language of Paul Bentley's libretto in Lloyd's production in 2003.

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Robert Hayward, Kate Lindsey - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Robert Hayward, Kate Lindsey
English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Now, Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley's The Handmaid's Tale is back at English National Opera, directed by Annilese Miskimmon (her first production as the company's artistic director), conducted by Joana Carneiro, designs by Annemarie Woods, lighting by Paule Constable and video by Akhila Krishnan, with Camille Cottin as Prof Pieixto, Kate Lindsey as Offred (her role and ENO debut), Emma Bell as Aunt Lydia, Pumeza Matshikiza as Moira, Rhian Lois as Janine, Robert Hayward as the Commander, Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, Frederick Ballentine as Nick and Elin Pritchard as Ofglen.

There is a coolness to Atwood's book that, for all its narrative faithfulness, was missing from the recent television series. And Ruders and Bentley successfully keep some of this coolness, partly because they preserve Atwood's tripartite time-structure. Professor Pieixto in the future (after the fall of Gilead), Offreds' present and her recent past before the creation of Gilead.

In the original score, Offred past and Offred present were played by different singers (at ENO in 2003 by Heather Sharp and Stephanie Marshall) but here Kate Lindsey sang both thanks to a mix of inventive staging and video flashbacks (with pre-recorded soundtrack and live accompaniment) which included a memorable scene where Offred has a duet with her earlier self (both played by Kate Lindsey).

For all the opera's large cast (ENO used 21 singers, 1 actor and a child), this is very much a one-woman show. It is Offred's narrative and we keep coming back to her. The other roles are relatively compact, often little more than vivid cameos, all well cast her. The final 'character' is the orchestra itself. Ruders' orchestral underpinning and interludes provide a strong character and help delineate the repressive nature of Gilead. He writes eclectically and uses style to delineate character and purpose, in a highly effective and dramatic way.

The drawback is that it takes time for the characters to settle and for much of the expository first act it was tricky to work out which of the women in red (the handmaids) was which. But Act Two was more tightly dramatic.

There has been a lot of social media  chatter recently about the use of intimacy coordinators (a role played here by choreographer Imogen Knight). Never have I seen a production where one seemed so essential; sex is at the very heart of the story and here it was staged in a way that really highlighted how demeaning it was for Offred whilst avoiding the prurient.

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Pumeza Matshikiza, Rhian Lois, Kate Lindsey - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Pumeza Matshikiza, Rhian Lois, Kate Lindsey - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Kate Lindsey's performance as Offred was simply astonishing, the way she controlled the monologues, drawing us in to Offred's emotional world, the way she captured the dichotomy of the meek Offred and the rather sharp-tongued woman from the time before. It is worth pointing out that this was Lindsey's ENO debut, and the London Coliseum is not the easiest of venues to take control of for such solo moments, but Lindsey did it superbly. 

It is essential that we care about Offred; the structure of the opera (following the book) has the Professor informing us that we don't know what happened to her at the end. This means we need to care, and oh boy did we. Lindsey made us fully a part of Offred's emotional and physical journey. It helped that Annilese Miskimmon gave us a haunting final image of her. A feature of the design was The Wall at the back of the stage, a stone structure with Gilead's logo and images of all those who died through crimes against the state. For Offred's final scene, Kate Lindsey attempted to clime this, but smoke obscured where she achieved her goal or not.

Elsewhere, Annemarie Woods' designs were simple, just curtains round the back and sides (which evoked for me 1950s hotel banqueting suite) and stray props as needed. The focus was on the people. Some flashbacks were done live with the present Offred somehow stepping back into the past in a way that suggested her obsessive reliving of it. Other scenes were hazy black and white video as Offred (present) sat in her room obsessing about the past.

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - Emma Bell - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Ruders' vocal writing in the opera is largely tonal and singer friendly. The main exception is Aunt Lydia, who communicates in demented coloratura, fearsomely rendered by Emma Bell in terrific form. The three handmaids who come to the fore, Moira (Pumeza Matshikiza), Janine (Rhian Lois) and Ofglen (Elin Pritchard) were all superbly taken, and by the end of Act Two each singer had deftly sketched in her character's journey and, like Kate Lindsey, made us care.

Robert Hayward's commando was a remote figure at first, but as Act Two progressed Hayward made us understand the man and his actions. Similarly, Avery Amereau's terrifically controlled Serena Joy came to pieces at the end in stunning fashion.

The other main characters were strongly etched cameos fitting into the whole, with Susan Bickely as Offred's mother and John Findon as Offred's husband. Frederick Ballantine made a charmingly oily Nick, though his role was somewhat brief, and Alan Oke was a suitably unsettling doctor, and Madeleine Shaw made a powerful impression as the housekeep Rita The role of Luke and Offred's young daughter was shared between Elspeth MacDonald and Frances Ditchburn. The progamme did not specify, but I understand I saw Elspeth MacDonald (Rhian Lois' daughter) and she was a consummate profession despite being all of five. In the spoken role of Prof. Pixieito, Camille Cottin created a striking impression. 

Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - English National Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Joana Carneiro and the orchestra made Ruders richly imaginative score really count, whether the passages of neo minimalism or the moments of quasi-serialism. It was a stylish and consummate performance.

In an article in the programme book, Ruders says how important it was for him for the work to be performed in English, as the two languages (Danish and English) have such different structures. Unfortunately, sitting in the Upper Circle we definitely needed the surtitles. Despite a valiant effort from the cast, words were tricky to apprehend.

The Handmaid's Tale is not an opera for the everyday, but Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley's recreation of Margaret Atwood's dystopic world remains chilling and worth exploring and more. COVID related problems meant that the run of the opera had to be cut short, and I do hope that ENO brings back this vividly theatrical production so that more people can enjoy it.

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