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The Handmaid's Wail: Reviewing 'The Handmaid's Tale' at the English National Opera

★★★ A timely revival that doesn’t quite hit the right notes.


'I wish my story was about love or sunsets or snow’ sings protagonist Offred, at the outset of Poul Ruders’ and Paul Bentley’s operatic adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale; but she might well be speaking for the writers. Margaret Atwood’s celebrated dystopian novel has all the ingredients of a good opera – violence, sex, death and memorable spoken refrains. Likewise, the medium might have much to contribute to this testimonial piece from the recorded voice of a handmaid. Atwood's story should have been energised by its adaptation for the stage in the early twenty-first century (when the fictional state of Gilead is supposed to have been established), for it is a time when the cyclical nature of women’s history seems all too apparent.


Kate Lindsey in the ENO's The Handmaid's Tale 2024. Photo by Zoe Martin.

But this adaptation fails to realise the full operatic potential of Offred’s story. The score has moments of innovation, particularly in the incorporation of recorded sound, but is at times overwrought, and the libretto tends towards a banality not worthy of one of the greatest and most important novels of the late twentieth century. Kate Lindsey’s sensitive portrayal of the protagonist (and her impressive stamina) is deeply moving nonetheless, and carries the production, giving us a glimpse of the opera The Handmaid’s Tale might have been.


Perhaps the most obvious difficulty for adapting the novel to the stage is its multi-layered narrative. The opera manages this by addressing its audience as delegates of the 2195 AD Symposium, framing the sung testimony of Offred with the speaking role of Professor Pieixoto, played by Juliet Stevenson. This marked contrast between speech and song, and the use of the cassette player as a framing device, not only effectively distinguishes between the two time periods and lends Gilead a heightened, slightly uncanny quality, it also brings out the importance of Offred’s voice as a site of her historical agency in the novel. The powerful vulnerability of Kate Lindsey’s high pianissimo draws us into the narrative as it emerges from the hiss of the tape.


Particularly striking is her duet with a recording of herself in the second act, which is one of the strongest sections of Ruders’ score. His recurrent use of ‘Amazing Grace’ also effectively conveys the entanglement of Offred’s past and present in her encounter with Serena Joy, the gospel singer turned Commander’s Wife, played by the excellent contralto Avery Amereau. Speakers placed behind the audience create a novel echo effect which gives the sense of personal, but also cultural, memory resonating across time. The use of recorded sound is matched by video projections of the Time Before, resulting in an expressive combination of live and mediated performance.


Kate Lindsey and ENO Chorus. Photo by Zoe Martin.

Disappointingly, however, these exciting and fruitful innovations are not consistent across the work. Elsewhere, Ruders’ orchestration lapses into heavy-handed pastiche, recalling Britten and Berg in particular, and the vocal writing, especially in the Red Centre, is sometimes rather shrill. More might have been made of the chanted beatitudes and of the women’s chorus in general. Bentley’s libretto similarly feels somewhat one-note at times, and moments of humour which should add to the horror of the narrative instead produce undercooked one-liners.


Ultimately, both the opera and this production could have been more thoughtful and more adventurous in their adaptation of such a powerful and well-conceived novel. Annilese Miskimmon’s staging simply and effectively evokes the familiar locations of Gilead, but it shies away from the extreme and visceral depictions of violence and sleaze which are central to the novel’s effect. Headshots of men in suits are a rather impotent substitute for bodies dangling from The Wall.


Opera's unique capacity for storytelling and its rich history of narratives of oppression and resistance certainly has the potential to bring new resonances out of powerful and timeless tales like Atwood’s. Indeed, telling new stories is what cultural institutions like ENO exist for, and why they need to be protected. The orchestra’s yellow Musicians’ Union t-shirts presented them almost as another colour-coded Gileadean caste, reminding us of the valuable work they do, and echoing the novel’s emphasis on the importance of story-telling to a self-conscious society. This production’s biggest flaw was that it didn’t go further in using the many unique resources of twenty-first-century opera to find a new way of telling this story.



 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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