Body horror: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, at English National Opera

This icy, subtle production presents Margaret Atwood’s terrifying vision with a clear-sighted, almost detached precision. Poul Ruders’s score gets under your skin, amping up the tension as events come to a head, while the heart-breaking performances relentlessly deal the emotional blows. Opera as commentary, catharsis and conscience: brilliantly done.


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the opera, based on Atwood’s classic alternative-history novel, dates back to the turn of the century, and first appeared at ENO in 2003. Now seems a particularly apposite time to bring it back (in a new production by ENO’s Artistic Director, Annilese Miskimmon).

In the years since, the nightmare ‘universe’ of Gilead has entered popular culture – following the acclaimed TV adaptation, alongside Atwood’s own celebrated sequel, ‘The Testaments’ – and, disturbingly, seems increasingly present in more areas of the real world than we would wish to contemplate.

Some brief background for those unfamiliar.

Following a murderous coup by a right-wing terror organisation, the USA is now the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The new regime brutally enforces an extreme distortion of biblical law, a key part of its ideology built on removing the basic human rights from all women.

The catalyst for this was a drastic fall in the birth-rate, following years of social, environmental and – in the warped Gilead worldview – moral decay. As such, women who had already had children, but then ‘fallen’ in some way (that is, remarried or lived with a partner outside wedlock) are separated from their families to become Handmaids.

Proven fertile, Handmaids are allowed to live, only to breed. They receive institutional training under the supervision of strict ‘Aunts’, before they are assigned to a childless household – often that of a high-ranking Gilead official (a ‘Commander’). Every month, a ghastly ritual takes place where the Commander attempts to get the Handmaid pregnant in his wife’s presence. Because Gilead does not recognise the possibility of a sterile man (of course), a Handmaid might be re-assigned to another couple after several unsuccessful months. Too many failures, and a future of hard labour in ‘the Colonies’ awaits.

Few who see any representation of the Handmaids’ red, hooded apparel – so potent and disquieting an image – can rid their minds of it easily. No wonder, then, that in place of the familiar Coliseum safety curtain, we take our seats in front of an exposed stage, already occupied by a still group of faceless, red-robed figures. Empty – immediately symbolising the Handmaids’ invisibility and loss of individuality – they are in fact a display at a future historians’ conference, focusing on Gilead studies. We, the assembled delegates, are to hear the secret diary of a Handmaid, recorded on old audio tapes, museum pieces now recovered as first-hand evidence of life under Gilead.

I don’t want to include ‘spoilers’: the run is still current at time of posting (see below). But the events related by this Handmaid, Offred, as she builds on her capacity for rebellion, are harrowing and horrifying, testing to destruction the physical and emotional impact of Gilead’s hellish oppression on herself, and all around her.

While an opera based on a book must inevitably compress the source, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a superbly streamlined, economic work. I think it’s important to recognise the achievement of librettist Paul Bentley here, and how ‘in sync’ the joint aims of Ruders and Bentley must have been.

As Atwood discusses in the programme notes, the use and abuse of language is vital to Gilead, as to any oppressive regime. (Obvious leap-into-my-head comparisons are Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and I’m sure there are many, many more.) Bentley ensures that certain haunting phrases, especially the Handmaids’ greeting (“Blessed be the fruit” / “May the Lord open”) recur, Ruders tracking these with motifs in the score to provide hooks to engage and re-engage the ear.

While Ruders doesn’t hold back from dissonance and alarm to bring the bloodshed and chaos of Gilead to life, the music is not hostile to the listener – at least no-one used to modern soundtracks. Tension mounts inexorably with – to use the composer’s own description – “sustained, towering chords”, and a tolling bell. There are some particularly effective collisions of style – you won’t have heard ‘Amazing Grace’ quite like this before – especially the writing for the Handmaids as a group, measured chanting with the stately beauty of plainsong, twisted by Gilead’s cruelty in line with their ‘anti-nun’ status and function. Special plaudits here for the women of ENO’s Chorus, singing with sensitivity and persuasion in spite of being themselves largely stripped of their usual identities and individuality. Always commanding with movement, they also excel in one particularly unsettling scene where they are released for just a few short minutes into unified, violent abandon. It’s portrayed with total conviction, in spite of the difficult subject matter and, let’s not forget, impaired vision and awkward attire. They give an exemplary, intuitive team performance.

The opera demands that several timelines are balanced simultaneously: the conference; Offred’s experiences as a Handmaid; and flashbacks of her life before the ‘Time of Gilead’. Miskimmon’s spare, elegant production manages this, seemingly with minimum fuss – but a lot of care. Everything is carefully framed, so we know where we are: the conference lecturer, always at the edge of the stage when present; while the flashbacks are cleverly projected, as if a TV drama or comedy, black & white to evoke a lost past. When these devices are played with, in moments where Offred’s old life literally passes before her eyes, the pain is palpable. The opening transition, from the spoken introduction to Offred’s spectral voice on audio tape, which then melds almost imperceptibly into the character singing ‘in the flesh’ onstage, is impeccably achieved.

The spare curtains on stage reflect and amplify the novel’s colour-coding. Perhaps one of Gilead’s most cynical, misogynistic evils is its ‘classification’ of women, not only designed to suppress them, but drive wedges between them and weaken them further. There’s the ‘scarlet woman’ Handmaid image; the icy grey-blue worn by the wives to make them project not just infertility but also frigidity; even the earthy brownish khaki of the Aunts, suggesting growth and nurture when their remit is to crush development and reduce their charges to machines.

Committed, unsparing performances by the soloists ensure that their characters are seared onto the memory as individuals. Aunt-in-chief Lydia’s fanaticism pierced the auditorium through Emma Bell’s shockingly fierce coloratura. Pumeza Matsikisha, Rhian Lois and Elin Pritchard skilfully created three very different Handmaids, with very different fates. Avery Amereau gave a vivid, complex performance as Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife humiliated by Offred’s presence – a successful Gospel singer in her old life, she is now discovering that rule by religion is not the unmixed blessing she might have expected. Amereau modulates her voice through devotion, seductiveness, cunning, arrogance, jealousy, hurt and resentment, all within the one compelling personality.

But the evening belonged to Kate Lindsey, a mezzo justly celebrated for her skill in classic ‘trouser roles’ (and three warmly recommended CDs). As Offred, she is essentially onstage throughout, projecting determination and vulnerability in equal measure. She even essays the ‘past’ and ‘present’ Offred with such clarity, they are almost two different roles – as indeed, in Gilead, they are. Constantly hemmed in by her circumstances (I can’t remember a character I’ve seen back away from the edge of the stage more often), she gives a portrayal of such controlled emotion and enigmatic grace that we feel we have an insight into her state of mind, even as she must keep it carefully hidden from those around her. I think this was a performance for the ages.


All photos in this article are by Catherine Ashmore, from the ENO website production gallery:

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is still on at English National Opera’s home theatre, the London Coliseum. It is not gratuitous in any way, but equally it is not for the faint-hearted, and ENO have themselves suggested a guideline minimum age of 15.

With that in mind: as I post this on the evening of Saturday 9 April, there are 3 performances remaining: 10 (matinee) if you’re phenomenally speedy and spontaneous, then evenings of 12 and 14 April. If you can go, go.


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